Rebranding Belmont - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the June 1, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds - @BH_EHammonds on Twitter

By Evan Hammonds Few in the industry would disagree that Belmont Park’s spring/summer stand offers the best quality of racing from top to bottom through the meet’s run from early May to mid July. Despite its strength—approximately 30% of all simulcast handle is on New York Racing Association events—even the best product can use a touch-up every now and then.

And the NYRA racing office has done just that by creating big days that put a sharper focus on Belmont Park for the two weekends between Pimlico’s Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and NYRA’s signature event, Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day.

Put into motion a year ago by P.J. Campo, NYRA’s vice president/director of racing, the first move was to repackage Memorial Day at Big Sandy, adding more pop to the program during the traditional summer kickoff that once only meant the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).

For 2011 Campo added the one-mile Acorn Stakes (gr. I) for sophomore fillies, previously run on Belmont Stakes weekend for more than a decade, and the Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I) for older fillies and mares, to the program that was already the home of the Sands Point Stakes (gr. IIT).

Moving other major races from the stakes calendar to kick off summer makes for a solid package and gives New Yorkers even more reason to come out to the track. This year more than 11,000 turned out, and the national handle eclipsed $20 million.

Big days mean bigger business. A singular grade I event on a Saturday or Sunday program these days draws a collective yawn from the betting public.

“Bigger days work better,” Campo said of his rebranding of the holiday program. “You really have to change with the times.”

The moves have also proved beneficial for the racing office. Moving the Acorn up nearly two weeks gives trainers more of a spread from the Acorn to the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. I), this year run June 22, and the Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I), run during the opening weekend of Saratoga in mid-July.

Relocating the Ogden Phipps helps Campo drum up additional runners as its spot on the calendar used to abut Churchill Downs’ Fleur de Lis Stakes (gr. II) and now falls three weeks after Churchill’s La Troienne Stakes (gr. II).

Bridging the Met Mile to the Belmont Stakes will be a new creation from the racing office: the June 1 Showcase Day for the New York-bred set. Taking the five state-bred races that had been strewn across the spring/summer schedule and adding two added-money races while mixing in the largesse in the state’s program from gaming revenue makes for a sizable day of racing.

The package of state-bred races is an attempt to capture the same buzz the original Showcase Day does in the fall. Run the final weekend of Belmont’s fall championship meet, and usually the weekend before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, Showcase Day has proved itself to be popular not only in New York but on a national scale. According to Campo, Showcase Day has the meet’s second-largest handle—behind that of Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) Day—on the fall calendar.

“Letting the New York-breds rep themselves on one big Saturday is really going to make for a nice day,” Campo said. “There is always big support for the New York-breds and the New York breeders and I thought the timing was good—between the Met Mile weekend and the Belmont—it kind of fit perfectly.”
The new Showcase Day is also a perfect fit for Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders.

“It shows the importance the New York program has on racing here in the state of New York,” he said. “What P.J. and the racing office did was fantastic. We have a full day of New York-bred stakes in the spring and it also jump-starts the 3-year-old campaign for the New York-bred series.”

The Mike Lee Stakes, for sophomores at seven furlongs, is the first leg of the Big Apple Triple that includes the New York Derby July 20 at Finger Lakes and the Albany Stakes Aug. 21 at the Spa.

Now that may add some sizzle to the summer of 2013. 

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