Updated on 03/05/2015 10:10PM

Crist: All eyes on first Saturday in March


If you’ve been hibernating the last four weeks – a perfectly reasonable response to the brutal winter weather in so much of the country – you may want to emerge from your den Saturday: There’s important racing at four tracks, including 11 graded stakes worth nearly $4 million. March is coming in like a lion in more ways than one.

The Santa Anita Handicap is the million-dollar headliner, with Shared Belief odds-on against 12 seemingly overmatched opponents, including last year’s Whitney winner, Moreno. Shared Belief, 9 for 10 in his career, has won the Malibu and San Antonio stakes in his last two starts. The Big Cap is carded as the finale on an outstanding 11-race card that concludes with five straight stakes races, including the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile and a showdown among Dortmund, Lord Nelson, and Ocho Ocho Ocho in the Grade 2 San Felipe.

The San Felipe is the best of four graded races for classic-bound 3-year-olds around the country Saturday, which feature the season debuts of the two beaten favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. At Gulfstream, Champagne Stakes winner Daredevil starts his campaign in the seven-furlong Swale, and at Tampa Bay Downs, Breeders’ Futurity winner (and Juvenile runner-up) Carpe Diem starts his campaign in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.

There’s also the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct, weather permitting, where El Kabeir will be favored against nine opponents seeking their first stakes victories. Aqueduct has two other stakes races, including the Tom Fool, with Salutos Amigos seeking a fourth straight stakes score, but has cleverly scheduled them as the third and fourth races on a 10-race card, apparently so as to have an unbroken quartet of statebred races from the fifth through eighth.

A race that may get lost in the shuffle is the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap for older males, with three major stakes winners making their first starts of 2015: Honor Code, the 2013 Remsen winner; Wicked Strong, last year’s Wood Memorial winner; and Private Zone, who scored Grade 1 victories last year in the Vosburgh and Cigar Mile.

I admit to having a soft spot for Tampa Bay Derby Day. Unlike the other host tracks of this weekend’s stakes, this is Tampa Bay’s biggest day of the year. The track goes all out, and it’s a particularly lively and festive day at the races. The stakes sequence of the Challenger, Florida Oaks, Hillsborough, and Tampa Bay Derby begins a little before 4 p.m. Eastern.

It’s a day of compelling coast-to-coast racing that bolsters the idea that perhaps a “first Saturday of the month” focus could work for the sport. The first Saturday of February featured the Shared Belief-California Chrome showdown in the San Antonio and two Grade 1 races at Gulfstream. The first Saturday in April will include three $1 million, Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds – the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Wood Memorial – as well as the Grade 1 Ashland, Carter, and Santa Anita Oaks. I believe there’s also a big race somewhere on the first Saturday in May.

Withholding reform gets a call

In a move that could ultimately prove more important for bettors than the result of any particular race this weekend, the Internal Revenue Service on Monday issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Public Hearing” regarding possible changes to IRS reporting and withholding requirements for gambling winnings. While the text of the notice mainly discusses bingo, keno, and slot-machine payoffs, there is a paragraph soliciting comment on the possibility of changing these requirements for pari-mutuel wagering as well.

The idea that has been proposed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is to make a bettor’s entire investment on a multihorse wager his base bet. If someone invests $24 on a pick-something, it would be reportable only if it pays 300 times that $24, or $7,200, rather than the current practice of pretending that the bettor made only a single winning wager and reporting proceeds as low as $602.

This is a long-neglected issue that deserves the industry’s full attention and whatever arm-twisting influence it can exert. Putting the hundreds of millions of dollars now unfairly withheld each year back into circulation to be repeatedly churned could lift the national handle by 10 percent in Year 1, as well as wooing back players who have fled the game because of onerous tax requirements.