Hanging on a wall at home is one of my most prized possessions. A gift from the late racing photographer Michael J. Martin, the framed print is of the field of the 1990 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) turning for home at Belmont Park. On the lead is the 3-year-old Housebuster, Robert Levy’s homebred who would be named champion sprinter of 1990 and 1991.
Advancing toward him are Calumet Farm’s Criminal Type and Ogden Phipps’ Easy Goer. The former was that year’s champion older male and Horse of the Year and the latter was the champion 2-year-old male of 1988. Tucked in behind the three champions is Jeffrey Sullivan’s Black Tie Affair, who developed into 1991’s champion older male and Horse of the Year. Also in the frame is Robert S. Evan’s Sewickley, a two-time winner of the grade I Vosburgh Stakes.
At the wire Criminal Type edged Housebuster by a neck with Easy Goer third. That was Thoroughbred racing on Memorial Day 26 years ago.
Summer’s traditional kickoff has a history of being one of the best racing weekends on the calendar. Conventional wisdom had it that if America had a three-day holiday weekend and the majority of the workforce had a day off, they’d head to the racetrack.
There used to be grade I races on both coasts on Memorial Day: the Met Mile at Belmont and the Hollywood Turf Cup in Southern California.
These days the Met Mile has been moved to Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day—no doubt the best summer racing day in the U.S.—and the Hollywood Turf Cup is run in the fall at Del Mar. Replacing those two anchor events are New York Showcase day at Belmont Park—a fine series for state-breds—and the grade I Gamely Stakes for older fillies and mares at Santa Anita Park.
However, this year’s Memorial Day seemed a little lighter in the open stakes category than in years past. And if we thought Memorial Day was lacking star power, wait until the Fourth of July.
Twenty years ago the Fourth of July included the grade I Beverly Hills and grade II American handicaps at Hollywood Park; the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) in New York; the Molly Pitcher Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. II) at Monmouth Park; the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III), and the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Breeders’ Cup Handicap (gr. III).
This year’s Fourth of July does fall on a Monday, and makes for a three-day weekend. Two grade Is are on tap for July 2-3; the Mother Goose at Belmont and the United Nations at Monmouth, respectively. On the actual Fourth, only the Dr. James Penny Memorial Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Parx is scheduled. That’s a sparkler, not a fireworks display.
There is one asterisk: Belmont’s Stars and Stripes day of two grade Is and four other graded stakes will be run July 9.
“It worked out better that weekend,” said Andrew Byrnes, stakes coordinator for the New York Racing Association. “It’s better spacing for the 3-year-olds, and we thought field sizes would be a lot better on the ninth.”
The best racing at the best tracks has gravitated toward “big days.” Think Florida Derby day, Big ’Cap day, Derby day, Belmont day, Pacific Classic day, Travers day, Fallstars Allstars weekend at Keeneland, and of course, Breeders’ Cup. Traditional racing holidays such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day have been left to the backyard barbeque set.
“We’ve geared everything toward Belmont Stakes weekend,”
Byrnes said. “We’ve tried to build that up like a Breeders’ Cup-type of event. That’s why the traditional days are kind of light.”
Belmont day is a spectacular day, as are most of the other big-event days throughout the year. However, ceding the rest of summer—and its holidays—leaves us feeling red, white, and blue.