09/07/2014 11:12AM

Watchmaker: Time right for NYRA to reassess fall meet


It is understood that one of the reasons why the Breeders’ Cup hasn’t been at Belmont Park since 2005 was uncertainty over the status of the New York Racing Association, uncertainty that led to a state takeover of the NYRA that is supposed to conclude in the fall of next year. And recently, lack of interest on management’s part is another reason why there is no Breeders’ Cup at Belmont.

But these excuses weren’t always in play, especially around the time when there was what appeared to be a big rush to award the 2009 Breeders’ Cup to Santa Anita. That marked the first time a track was designated as host of consecutive Breeders’ Cups, and it seemed like a major slap in the face to New York racing.

Reasons aside, the fact that it has been so long since a Breeders’ Cup was held in New York is especially frustrating to area racing fans. And that is because of the simple fact that no racing circuit in America sacrificed more than New York did to assist and ensure the success of the Breeders’ Cup.

Before the Breeders’ Cup, no races in America had a greater say in determining year-end championships than the fall stakes in New York. The Jockey Club Gold Cup was the de facto Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Champagne and Frizette routinely crowned the juvenile champions. And so on.

This all came to mind again after conversing with a few folks during the first two days of the Belmont fall meet, people who seemed struck how low key this opening weekend was. This is a meet that used to be known as the “Fall Championship Meet.” But now, when it comes to premier stakes racing, this Belmont meet essentially is a two-day affair. “Super Saturday” on Sept. 27 will be a great day with the Jockey Club Gold Cup heading a card that includes four other Grade 1 races, and the following Saturday will be big with the doubleheader of the Champagne and Frizette. But these once defining races are now Breeders’ Cup preps, and the rest of the Belmont fall schedule just feels very light, especially coming on the heels of a strong Saratoga meet.

Another factor that could weaken this Belmont meet is the new dirt surface at Keeneland. Everyone (well, almost everyone) is happy Keeneland has switched from Polytrack back to dirt because it brings a great racetrack with a great schedule of truly prestigious stakes races back in line with the rest of American racing. But Keeneland will be a fierce competitor for Belmont for stakes horses this fall at a time when good stakes horses are at a premium.

Close Hatches, currently the ranking older female in the nation, will run in Keeneland’s Spinster, not Belmont’s Beldame. Yes, I know Close Hatches is owned by Juddmonte, a strong supporter of racing at Keeneland. But with the Spinster now back on dirt, Close Hatches’ connections didn’t even have to think twice about it, whereas if the Spinster were still on Polytrack, the Beldame would have, for this filly, been a strong option. And connections with Breeders’ Cup-worthy 2-year-olds will be taking long looks at the Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity over the Frizette and Champagne. Unlike the races at Belmont, the Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity are two-turn preps for their corresponding Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita, which will also be two-turn events.

It’s hard to envision when, if ever, the Breeders’ Cup will return to Belmont. The NYRA has to really want to have it, because it’s certainly no moneymaker for the track that hosts it. And with no one really knowing what will happen, if anything, when the three-year state takeover plan is up next year, there seems to be plenty of uncertainty over what the future holds for New York racing. Against that backdrop, maybe it’s time for the NYRA to reassess positioning its premier fall races as pure Breeders’ Cup preps, and consider looking for a middle ground between that and maximizing these events for a stronger overall fall meet.

Quick notes:

Vicar’s in Trouble was impressive winning the Super Derby. My book on Vicar’s in Trouble was that he was at his best when allowed to ramble early. But he rated beautifully early Saturday and turned in what might have been his best performance yet.

I’m still trying to figure out how Medal Count managed to lose the Dueling Grounds Derby.

I’m also still wondering where all that money on Ria Antonia in the Locust Grove came from. Sheesh, that was nuts. But that pari-mutuel support didn’t help her run any better.

Apparently, there are some who think the group who contested the Iroquois was a good one. I guess I missed it. I’m trying hard to not be harsh on 2-year-olds competing in a two-turn stakes race the first weekend of September. But Bold Conquest, who was beaten only a neck, came out of two of what I thought were the weakest straight maiden juvenile races run at the Saratoga meet.