02/07/2014 5:46PM

The New Belmont Stakes Day


Count me in as one who was wowed by the NYRA’s announcement today (Friday) making this year’s Belmont Stakes Day an $8 million day of racing, the second richest in the U. S. behind only Breeders’ Cup Saturday. I love the concept, although I do acknowledge the two biggest reservations that have surfaced so far should be heard.

The biggest complaint seems to concern what the big purse money boosts given to nine of the 10 stakes scheduled for Belmont Stakes Day will do to the overnight purse structure. The counter to that argument is look at the purses right now in New York. If you’re honest and objective about it, you can make a very strong case that many, if not the majority of horses racing in New York right now are competing for purses much bigger than they deserve to be competing for. So at worst, this can and should all even out in the long run.

The other concern seems to be, what if there is bad weather on Belmont Day? It could happen, but poor weather can happen anytime, anywhere. The weather was lousy at Churchill Downs on Derby Day last year, and I’ve been at a Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita where it was 100 degrees (and it felt hotter than that), and it rained ash from nearby wildfires. Hey, this is a game played outdoors, subject to the weather. You hope for good things, but if it rains, you deal with it and make the best of the situation.

The good to this concept far outweighs any bad. Every year, the Belmont Stakes “buzz” is always been entirely dependent on what happens in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Obviously, the Belmont is electric when there is a Triple Crown shot on the line, and it is still special if you get a showdown between the Derby and Preakness winner. But short of that, which is most of the time, Belmont Day can, for many, fall a bit flat. I don’t necessarily buy into this Breeders’ Cup in June stuff because championships (outside of the 3-year-old male division) are rarely won in June. But this concept does greatly strengthen the footing of Belmont Stakes Day, and makes its success as a big event far less dependent on the Derby and Preakness than it used to be.

If I had one quibble with this new plan, it would be this: The Belmont Stakes is supposed to be the centerpiece of this new event. As such, it should have a purse that is bigger than only $250,000 more than a Met Mile (a race, buy the way, that has LONG been one of my personal favorites), and more than $500,000 larger than the Manhattan and Ogden Phipps. In this context, a purse of $2 million for the Belmont (as opposed to $1.5 million) sounds about right.

Martin Panza, the NYRA’s new Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, deserves a lot of credit for the courage of going bold here, and for achieving the difficult balance of doing so also in a thoughtful way. And we need more bold like this in the game. But even before this announcement, I personally liked the subtle changes Panza had made since coming to NYRA a couple of months ago. Gone are some of the more ridiculous claiming conditions bettors were subjected to, as well as the plethora of phony overnight stakes (really, did patrons of New York racing need three Three Coins Up stakes a year?). Getting rid of the overnight stakes alone will go a long way toward rebuilding what had become a shambles of a graduated allowance race program, and in the long run, that will only make for higher quality racing.