In my own judgment, racetrack managers in most states have failed to see the problems they have created for themselves. Fact is, there are so many tracks open for so many months each year, the majority have had to cut down on the number of races they offer each day.
Instead of a five day racing week with nine and 10 races per day, Santa Anita just ran four-day race weeks, with eight races on Thursday and Friday. That pattern is repeated in many states that used to operate five and six days a week with plenty horses left over after running nine and 10 races a day! Even Gulfstream Park had eight race cards …
And yet, when Saratoga opens for 2015 on July 24, it does so with 427 races planned, or about 14 more than 2014, when NYRA slightly reduced the total. The schedule calls for nine-race cards on Monday, 10-race cards Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, and 11-race cards on Saturday, excepting the Travers and Woodward cards (PDF). This is also during a meet in which most graded stakes have been moved to weekends and stakes that previously headlined days — such as the Personal Ensign and Sword Dancer — have been bundled into a “Big Day.” As Mike Watchmaker, taking on the super card trend, observes, “The daily stakes schedule at Saratoga does look pretty lean in the middle of this upcoming meet” (DRF+). Saratoga is great, and it can be a grind. I fear this year it’s going to be more of the second for even the most devoted fans.
They just keep adding layers of cost to the fans and bettors. They continue to introduce pockets of exclusivity in what historically has been one of the most democratic places in the country, the racetrack.
In New York, the state issues a fine or penalty for excessive use of the whip. But since 2010, racing stewards have also enforced a house rule of no more than five strikes in succession, with a pause of two or three strides to see if the horse responds.
When a rider violates the rule, one of the tan wall phones in the jockeys’ locker room will ring, Dr. Hill said, and the call will go out: “Movies for Jockey A tomorrow” — meaning a violation was caught on film, and the jockey will be given a $500 fine that will go to a track-related charity.
Retired jockey and NYRA analyst Richard Migliore says he’d like to see a whip rule that goes beyond the soon-to-be implemented California guidelines: “one strike of the whip, then wait a few strides to see if the horse responds.”
When NYRA tweeted a photo of the newly retired Stymie parading at Jamaica in 1949, it immediately called to mind one of the great pieces of turf writing — Joe Palmer’s “Common Folks,” about the popular horse’s final appearance.
— NYRA (@TheNYRA) March 22, 2015
Stymie was retired after finishing second in the 2 1/4 mile New York Handicap on October 1; he was found sore in the right front leg, in the same spot where he had previously sustained a sesamoid fracture. “He was just getting good,” lamented trainer Hirsch Jacobs of the 9-year-old. A month later, Jacobs reported Stymie was galloping sound, “but he doesn’t trot the way he should.” The next day, the trainer declared that Stymie’s career was over.
It’s about time to make mention of the fact that old Stymie, racing’s money champion, was very much among those present for the third running of the Gold Cup. He’s on the retired list now. In a sentimental gesture that was appreciated by all hands, Hirsch Jacobs had him jog through the stretch before the race and then take part in the paddock preliminaries. It was his last public appearance in New York before he goes to stud in Kentucky.
Stymie, with pink and green ribbons braided in his mane and tale, got a fond farewell from Jamaica’s children. There was much beating of palms when a pony boy, Alton (Mickey) Finney, led him through the stretch and there was additional applause when he was walked back to his barn …
Some think he’s the most popular horse that has run in this theatre of turf operations since Exterminator’s day.
Palmer, writing for the New York Herald Tribune, put it this way:
… the racetrackers, I think, save most of their affection for the Exterminators and the Stymies and the Seabiscuits, who do it the hard way in the handicaps, pounding out mile after bitter mile, giving weight and taking their tracks wet or dry, running for any jockey, and trying with what they’ve got, even when they haven’t got enough. That’s why Stymie fitted a farewell better at Jamaica than a welcome in Kentucky …
This tourist … will long remember the way Stymie came around the turn in the Pimlico Cup Handicap, making pretty good horses look as if they had just remembered a pressing engagement with the quarter pole.
He was not a great horse, in the sense that Man o’ War and Equipoise were great. He isn’t versatile … [b]ut give him a field with speed in it, at a mile and a half or more, and horses had better get out of his way, even Whirlaway.
Anyway, another fine and ardent and satisfactory story of the turf was brought to a close at Jamaica. And it was happy to note, for all the the long campaign, it was not a battered and limping warrior which left us. Stymie never looked better with his bronze coat in great bloom, and the high head carried as proudly as ever.
As he stood for the last time, before the stands, people around the winner’s enclosure were shouting … “Bring him in here, for just for one more time.”
The groom didn’t obey, and probably was right. Stymie never got in a winner’s circle without working for it. It was no time to begin.
(I love those last two paragraphs.)
Stymie retired with a record of 131-35-33-28 and earnings of $918,485.
“Right now if you look at the Triple Crown, a month or three weeks before the Derby is when the preps end and there’s really not another big 3 year-old race until a month after the Belmont.
“I’m not sure the rest of the tracks in America would be willing to give us a 4-month break with no big 3-year-old races and that’s what you would be asking for. I just don’t see how that could happen.
“It’s a much more complex situation than just those three races …
“And anything I do at Belmont, I’m also very conscious of not wanting to affect Saratoga. I’m trying to complement Saratoga, not hurt Saratoga.”
No matter what the reason for California Chrome coming up empty when it counted, I am convinced that had the Belmont been run a week earlier, two weeks after the Preakness instead of three, he would have won since he was full of energy then. I felt the same way with Funny Cide and Smarty Jones who also looked great the week before but came up short on the big day.
Running the Belmont two weeks after the Preakness would definitely not be traditional: One of the most striking things in Natalie Voss’ report on the race schedules of the 11 Triple Crown winners is that the Belmont is consistently three to four weeks after the Preakness. Citation won a race between the two, but his Triple Crown season stretched 42 days. Assault, the only horse to win the Triple Crown in 28 days, had three weeks between the two races.
Related: Matt Hegarty writes about the proposal to increase the time between Triple Crown races to four weeks. “Plainly stated,” he asks, “is it worth it for the racing industry to risk the significance of the one event that the entire sporting world rallies around when there is no evidence that the public is clamoring for change?” Of course not! What makes me hopeful that this scheme will fizzle for another year is that NYRA just set a record, handling more than $150 million on their new mega-Belmont Stakes day.
… there also remains the undeniable fact that claiming races, by their very nature, serve to weaken the inherent responsibilities of both ownership and animal husbandry. The demands of constant turnaround require short-term solutions in veterinary care. The claiming game also nurtures the ability to suppress any real emotional attachments to the horses involved. They are, after all, merely transients — poker chips, as one famous claiming owner called them — no more or less than means to an end.
What’s the future for claiming races?
That’s one of the questions I took away from reading the New York Task Force report, which determined that sharply increased purses “commoditized” lower level claiming horses earlier this year, and suggested reforming claiming rules so that claims may be voided if a horse is vanned off. “The voiding of a claim should not require the death of the horse,” the report’s authors write on page 60. Practical, humane — exactly the sort of rule change that’s necessary if claiming races are going to continue to be a significant part of the game. But while the imbalance in purses and claiming prices at Aqueduct may have led to the resulting claiming frenzy last winter, it didn’t actually commodify the horses, because they were already commodities. Most in racing don’t question the system — the claiming game has been a pretty elegant solution to keeping races competitive over the years — but it’s becoming harder to defend.
Gov. Cuomo, in a startling move, has decided to “privatize” the running of the famed Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga thoroughbred tracks with a new management company that will replace the scandal-scarred New York Racing Association, The Post has learned.
I have no idea how this will play out, can make no predictions on how New York racing will be changed in the coming years, but do wish I could shake the unease and cynicism that comes with everything I read of Cuomo’s plans.
9/25/12 Addendum: Tom Noonan gives three reasons why privatization isn’t such a hot idea. Cuomo walks back the report, according to the New York Times, saying privatization is just one option that might be considered.
9/27/12 All you need to read on the subject: “I don’t see this happening.”
In June 2011, Courier-Journal reporter Gregory Hall live tweeted the John Veitch-Life at Ten hearing. It was superb coverage. “My 140-word tweets give fuller picture of the Veitch hearing than my newspaper story tomorrow will,” he wrote then, a realization that helped lead to yesterday’s launch of Hall’s new blog, HorseBiz, which promises “inside baseball” for racing folk. I’ve already added it to my RSS reader. You should too.
Few use 140 characters as effectively as @o_crunk, who tweeted about Trakus:
Trakus could be. Why isn’t it?
Also seeking answers re: New York racing …
On May 30, 2012, I made a freedom of information request to Racing and Wagering that was partially answered after the maximum number of delays allowed by law; then the information was mailed to the wrong address.
Frustrating. And the information she does get is illuminating only in what it reveals about the current state of New York’s racing stewardship.
In happier news: “After a period of time, IHA regained his calmness and he [grazed] in stately fashion just like a star.” Big Red Farm’s weekly I’ll Have Another updates are delightful (via).
… now things are starting to change. Where will the sport be when the slots money starts to go away? Whatever the answer is, it’s not a good one.
“The racing industry will get 16 percent of the racino’s net earnings,” Hayward said. “We can take a little bit of pain in terms of reduced handle.”
In Hayward’s favor, NYRA numbers are strong post-NYC OTB.
Copyright © 2000-2015 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.