Watching TVG’s coverage of Tampa Bay Downs’ Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and its supporting stakes Feb. 11 was encouraging. The racing was captivating, but we were also impressed by what was going on in the background: parking areas appeared to be packed and an apron full of fans took in the fun, the sun, and the action.
The Davis program, along with the March 11 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Florida Oaks (G3T), and Hillsborough Stakes (G2T), are the track’s signature days that draw national attention to one of racing’s “secondary” venues.
Few other small racing facilities can garner that type of attention, even for just one day. One that comes to mind is Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino (one of our favorites, by the way) and its Sunland Derby (G3) that will be run this year on March 26.
Tracks of that size have to bundle their best races into one program to take advantage of whatever buzz they can generate.
The larger players in the sport—the New York Racing Association, California (think Santa Anita Park), and Gulfstream—have also bunched their major stakes into a handful of big days.
While it makes for plenty of bang-bang excitement, with a Breeders’ Cup-like atmosphere, have track managements put a few too many eggs in too few baskets? There seems to be a few too many Saturday afternoons throughout the year without star power.
Gulfstream Park offers but two graded stakes from Feb. 12 through the end of the month, then has eight, highlighted by the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) March 4. The next three weekends feature a total of two graded stakes before an April 1 stakes fest with the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1).
Santa Anita cards only three graded stakes from now until its March 11 Big ’Cap (G1) card, then has three graded races spread over the next three weekends. Three graded stakes support the Santa Anita Derby (G1) card April 8.
Churchill Downs’ Derby/Oaks weekend is a delight, but other than Stephen Foster day in mid-June, there are but a few grade 2s and 3s sprinkled around the remaining Saturdays.
NYRA, which released its spring/summer stakes schedule three days before the Davis, has perfected the “big days,” especially with its Belmont Stakes (G1) day that features seven other grade 1 or grade 2 events. The Stars and Stripes day in early July is a corker as well, but there are some yawning gaps in quality races in late April, late June, and from after the Belmont to the opening of Saratoga.
We understand the reasoning behind the bundling of “big days.” Tracks can charge a premium for their simulcast signal on those days while increasing handle: That’s the main driver—but has the pendulum swung too far?
Would the Derby—be it Santa Anita, Florida, or Kentucky—card be any less attractive with one less graded stakes earlier in the day? The Belmont card—mind-boggling in its scope—is a sensory-overload of an afternoon that can leave a few grade 1-worthy efforts overlooked when all is said and done.
It might be time for track managements to rethink their stakes schedules and let them back out a notch.
Not every Saturday needs a grade 1, but when attempting to put on the best show in the game, there needs to be a reason for people to come out to the track.