What we learned this weekend
Departing did it again, scooping up another huge purse as the heavy favorite versus overmatched rivals. This time, it was the $500,000 Super Derby (GII), which he won by four lengths at odds-on. He’s now the third highest-earning 3-year-old – ahead of two classic winners and the Travers winner – despite never hitting the board in a Grade I race. We still don’t know how good he is, and we probably won’t until next year. The plan, as reported in Sunday’s Daily Racing Form by Mary Rampellini, is for Departing to make one more start as a 3-year-old, in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park (GIII) on Sept. 29.
Trainer Al Stall Jr. hopes that Departing could be a top handicap horse in 2014. However, I’m disappointed we have to wait so long to see how he stacks up. The Super Derby has propelled 3-year-olds to success against older horses in the past, most notably with Sunday Silence and Tiznow, who each won the Breeders’ Cup Classic not long after triumphs in Bossier City, La. The other Super Derby winners who tried the Breeders’ Cup Classic a month or two later are Alysheba (second, 1987), Deputy Commander (second, 1997), Seeking the Gold (second, 1988), Gate Dancer (third, 1984), Soul of the Matter (fourth, 1994), Regal Ransom (eighth, 2009), Ten Most Wanted (eighth, 2003),Fantasticat (ninth, 2004), Arch (ninth, 1998), Wallenda (ninth, 1993), Ecton Park (12th, 1999), Editor’s Note (12th, 1996) and Home at Last (DNF, 1990). Also, My Pal Charlie, trained by Stall, tried the Breeders’ Cup Mile and finished fourth in 2008.
Looking at Stall’s decision to pass on facing older horses this year, one might assume that the connections – which includes owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dislschneider – feel Departing isn’t quite up to the task. Having seen the way they patiently and conservatively manage good horses, though, I suspect the opposite is true. With Blame, they mapped out a plan to get to the Breeders’ Cup Classic more than 10 months in advance. Now with Departing the plan might already be in motion, 13 months out, starting with this decision not to push him at three.
Departing wins the Super Derby (Photo courtesy of Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges, Jr.).
More is, in fact, more
If Saratoga is our premier track, and one of the few that consistently offers a first-class experience, why would we want less of it? Don’t we want to put our best foot forward as often as possible?
And yet, the end of the summer season has left critics admonishing the New York Racing Association for the sin of trying to be profitable.
Yes, the quality of racing at the Spa is not what it used to be. It takes more state-bred and lower-level claiming races to fill the cards. But the top-shelf racing is hardly compromised as a result. The stakes schedule remains pretty much the same from one year to the next and quality allowance races are used as often as those races can be filled.
If adding races and days didn’t make financial sense, NYRA wouldn’t do it, especially under a new CEO, Chris Kay, who managed a Fortune 200 company. Bettors may grumble about quality, yet the numbers show that wagering behavior is affected more by field size than by purses or conditions. On the last Friday of the season, the cheapest (by that I mean the lowest purse) contest on the card – a turf sprint for eight maiden $25,000 claimers – handled more than all but two races. The day before, the cheapest race on the card – a 12-horse sprint for $20,000 claimers – was one of the most attractive betting propositions of the afternoon and handled more than all but three races on an 11-race card. If we consider handle to be the truest indicator of what players want, they would clearly take 12 state-bred maidens over seven open ‘a-other-thans’ any day.
If your main concern is quality, then you have to tolerate quantity. High-level open-company races don’t attract as many horses, at any track, and people don’t bet short fields. Yet you need handle to maintain your purse account. Cheaper horses fill races.
We also have to be aware that problems with the horse population and filling quality races at Saratoga are not the result of decisions in the NYRA racing office. There are generous purses, some slots-enhanced, all over the Northeast, meaning that owners and trainers of good horses have a lot of options. Offering fewer races wouldn’t force everyone into filling a Saratoga card that would take us back to the old days; it would force them to run in Pennsylvania or Delaware or anywhere else they could find an easier spot.
Now how about extending the meet? As much as traditionalists would howl, the truth is it’s the right thing to do. It wouldn’t mean adding racing days to the overall NYRA calendar; it would be shifting dates that are already run downstate. Extra days at Saratoga will always do better business than comparable dates at Belmont or Aqueduct. And the extra handle is just the start of it – imagine how much more NYRA makes in admissions, programs, concessions, etc. from one weekday at Saratoga with 15,000+ in attendance than a typical weekday at one of the other NYRA tracks with a few thousand. The media often focus on all-sources handle because it’s readily available via charts, but when it comes to the bottom line, the profit from $10 worth of concessions sold on track are more impactful than that shiny quarter a track might keep from $10 wagered off track.
When it comes to offering the best experience for fans, diluting the crowds across more days allows for a more pleasant afternoon. For the average racegoer, Saratoga with 15,000 fans is more navigable and enjoyable than with 20,000 or more. Easier parking, shorter lines, better seats, available picnic tables, etc. At the end of an expanded season, total attendance will have increased and more people will have had a fun time at the races. That is what we want, isn’t it?
It was reported at a recent board meeting that NYRA is operating with a significant deficit. Eventually we all want to see the New York tracks operated by a permanent entity – whether it’s a new owner or a more stable NYRA – that has the best long-term interests of the Thoroughbred in mind. For that to happen, NYRA has to prove there’s money to be made. As fans, we should accept that, logically, they need to get the most out of their best product.
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In sprints, horses starting from posts 1-5 went a combined 0-for-25 at Ky Downs Saturday.— Frank Angst (@BH_FAngst) September 9, 2013