Saratoga's Sweet Spot - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the September 7, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell As Saratoga Race Course wrapped up a successful 40-day meet, residents of this upstate New York community began questioning whether the escalating number of races here is compromising the meet’s quality.

Concerns were aired Aug. 26 during a second New York Racing Association public forum, which allowed customers a chance to speak directly to NYRA executives.

Of particular concern was the six-day schedule that mostly offered 10 races per day. Only three days this year had cards of nine races, while 17 days had 11 races or more. Fourteen races were carded Aug. 24 on Travers Stakes (gr. I) day.

The number of days and races has crept upward since 2009, when NYRA expanded from a 36-day meet to a 40-day meet. In 2009 Saratoga ran 329 races that attracted an average field size of 8.5 starters per race. This year’s 40-day meet offered 420 races with 8.1 average starters per race.

Concerns in the recent past have been voiced about a decline in racing quality, driven by NYRA’s desire to offer more races. There doesn’t appear, however, to be a dramatic shift in the types of races being run over the past 10 years. While the percentage of claiming races has increased some to 23%, it has essentially been at this level for the past four years and is the same as it was in 2004. The percentage of maiden races has fluctuated between 37% and 41%, and the percentage of all stakes races has seen minor changes but has remained between 17% and 21% since 2009. This year 19% of the races were stakes. What has changed significantly is the total number of races, having grown 22% since 2004. Quality will surely suffer as the number of races is increased, especially at a time when the annual foal crop is decreasing.

Still, the races offered this year were attractive to bettors. The total all-sources handle was essentially even with last year at more than $586.68 million compared with $588.35 million in 2012. The total 2013 on-track handle, according to numbers reported to Equibase, was $130,354,654, up a slight 1.6% from 2012 despite a drop in average daily attendance. Equibase’s figures show an average daily attendance of 21,680 compared with the 2012 average of 22,526 reported by NYRA.

There is no point in comparing the handle with 2009 when the world’s economy spiraled out of control.

These handle figures do seem to back up what NYRA’s new CEO Christopher Kay said during the public forum, that there doesn’t appear to be any “bettor fatigue” caused by the additional days and races.

“Look at what’s being bet around the country,” added Patrick Mahoney, NYRA’s senior vice president of pari-mutuel operations. “People look up and see their choice of signals; they see Saratoga at 3:45 in Los Angeles. The Saratoga name means something, and people will bet into that race.”

No question the Saratoga brand is strong.

NYRA is doing what it should do after every meet: evaluate the numbers and identify areas to improve. Does the track need to run 10 races on a Monday when the on-track and off-track handles are at their lowest? Maybe not. Perhaps a lighter card on Mondays and Thursdays (another relatively soft day) would allow purse money to be shifted and better-quality races offered on other days.

Saratoga is unquestionably attractive because it is still a boutique meet, and NYRA should be mindful that extending the meet any further or adding more races won’t make the product better. But for now, the meet seems to be in a sweet spot that provides plenty of opportunities for horsemen and ample good races for bettors and fans.

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