Getting The Trip - By Evan Hammonds

It’s doubtful the second half of the racing season—read Saratoga Race Course and Del Mar—could have gotten off to a more interesting start over the past weekend. The two grade 1 races at Saratoga delivered drama with both outcomes requiring photo finishes—and stewards’ approvals—before being made official. At Del Mar, Arrogate, number one on Longines World’s Best Racehorse rankings, prepped for the Aug. 19 TVG Pacific Classic (G1) in the TVG San Diego Handicap (G2).

The colt failed to fire, finishing off the board against four rivals, beating only one home, and that a horse whose rider had lost his stirrups at the break. Record place and show prices were set for the track after Arrogate burned more than $2.45 million of the more than $2.67 million in the win-place-show pools.

The stunning upset at Del Mar was reminiscent of the 1996 Pacific Classic when the “unbeatable” Cigar, trying to beat Citation’s 16-race streak, went down to defeat to Dare and Go.

The summer’s two best meets began with buzz, but will they be able to sustain the momentum? Saratoga, which a generation ago for a four-week respite used to be the “August Place to Be,” has been stretched to the seven-week “Summer Place to Be.”

Labor Day weekend seems a long way off, and the quality of play, from the lowest levels to the grade 1 events, will certainly be tested. Will the numbers hold up?

History says “yes.”

Looking at data at both tracks from The Jockey Club Information Systems over the last 20 years, the numbers are pretty consistent.

At Saratoga in 1997 the New York Racing Association offered 342 races over 37 days with an average field size of 8.00. Ten years ago, with a 37-day stand, it offered 349 races with an average field size of 8.79. Last year the number of races ballooned to 408 over 40 days—that’s more than 10 races a day—and had an average field size of 8.09.

We won’t kid ourselves believing the quality of racing is the same today as it was in another era when Saratoga only ran four weekends, but the fact is field size has remained relatively consistent, offering bettors from the cooler-and-picnic-table set in Saratoga’s backyard to the advance deposit wagering players around the country, plenty of options. Handle figures have to be stronger than what NYRA saw in late July when Belmont Park ran through the end of the month.

The stats from Del Mar also have remained consistent over the last two decades, and it actually ran fewer days and races last year—39 days and 347 events—than it did in 1997 when the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club presented 43 days of racing and 370 races. The average field size has advanced from 8.16 to 8.31 in those two snapshots.

However, there is a big kicker: purses. In Southern California the average daily payout has been stagnant and has not kept pace with the U.S. cost of living (according to the American Institute for Economic Research). While the cost of living has advanced 51.9% since 1997, purses at Del Mar rose only 37.6% from 1997 to last year. In the last 10 years daily average purses have risen only 4.7%.

On the other hand, casino gaming at Aqueduct has helped daily average purses at Saratoga to soar 118% over the last 20 years, from $470,818 to an unprecedented $1,024,766 last season. In the last 10 years the increase has been 35.6%.

The stories—from Arrogate at Del Mar to Travers weekend in upstate New York—the summer, and the money, should keep things interesting for the duration.

Enjoy the ride.

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