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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Walt Gekko

Here's what I would do on the racing front for 2014:

1. Eight races Wed-Thurs-Fri, 13 on Saturdays, 12 on Sundays and eight plus any jump races on Mondays (no jump race closing day). Only exceptions are 10 on opening day, 15 races (including the New York Turf Writers Cup 'Chase, which would open the card) on Travers Day and 12 on closing day.

2. First post would be 3:00 PM Wed-Thurs-Fri (usually a 6:40 PM finish) and 12:30 PM Sat-Sun-Mon. Only exceptions are 11:00 AM first post on Travers Day and 11:30 AM or Noon on closing day.

3. No conditioned claimers (all claiming races are either open or for maidens). Minimum claiming price is a strict $20,000 on dirt and $35,000 on turf (and for maidens on dirt) like it used to be. Also, no maiden claimers on turf.

4. Claiming races can only have purses where the winner's share can not exceed the claiming price (going long and 80% of the purse going short) AND can only carry a purse of 40% above the claiming price going short and 60% above the claiming price going long. Maiden claimers can go for no higher than 75% of the purses for open claimers under these guidelines.

5. NYRA would reserve the right to have grass races go for lower purses than dirt races since grass races are easier to fill. This is actually the case in Marland and a few other places where turf races often draw full fields anyway and dirt races struggle to get big fields.  For example, maiden races on dirt would remain at $80,000 going short and $85,000 going long, but on turf, those races would be cut to $70,000 and $75,000 because grass races more easily fill.

6. As an enticement for trainers to get their horses into races of 1 1/4 Miles or longer on dirt and 1 1/2 Miles or longer on turf on a regular basis, I would look to offer those with severely enhanced purses.  Maidens for races of 1 1/4 Miles or more on dirt and 1 1/2 Miles or more on turf would go for $100,000, while an N1x allowance at the longer distance would go for $110,000, N2x $120,000 and so forth in an attempt to encourage trainers to make their horses go longer distances, with any stakes race at 1 1/4 Miles or longer on dirt and 1 1/2 Miles or longer on turf being worth at least $200,000.

7. There should definitely be special wagers, including the Jim Dandy-Haskell Double and if NYRA were permitted to bring in The Meadowlands during Harness season, a double of The Whitney and Hambletonian for instance. I would also have a Travers-Pacific Classic double as well as a Travers-Personal Ensign-Pacific Classic Pick Three. I would have two separate pick fours linking the Travers, Personal Ensign and Pacific Classic: One that would begin with Friday's Ballerina Stakes and run over three days and a second beginning with the King's Bishop on Travers Day and run over two days. I would also have a Pick Three involving the Ballerina, Travers and Personal Ensign over three days.

04 Sep 2013 7:13 PM
tom egan

 you should work for NYRA. Thoughts were excellent.

09 Sep 2013 10:41 AM

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