07/03/2014 11:57AM

Crist: Big race days keep sizzle going in New York


Whether or not you think that what American racing really needs is a pair of new seven-figure races for 3-year-olds on grass, Saturday’s inaugural Stars and Stripes Day card at Belmont Park has already succeeded in its mission: to create a stakes-rich, meaningful day of racing in New York during the six weeks between the Belmont Stakes and the opening of Saratoga.

This is the second major makeover at the Belmont spring-summer meeting from Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association’s new senior vice president of racing operations. The first was enhancing Belmont Stakes Day with races that previously had been run over Memorial Day weekend, including the iconic Metropolitan Mile. Belmont Day featured nine graded stakes, six of them Grade 1s, as gaudy a card of racing as anyone has seen outside of a Breeders’ Cup Saturday. It was an artistic success and, in Panza’s view, a financial one as well.

“I was hoping we’d handle $125 million for the day, and we did $152 million,” he said. “On straight bets alone, the handle on the Met Mile went from $1.8 million to over $7 million.

“You’re not always going to have a horse going for a Triple Crown,” he added, “and this new lineup means we’ll have a great day of racing regardless. Basically, it gives New York a summertime Breeders’ Cup kind of day. People will decide in March or April that they’re going for Belmont Day whether or not there’s a Triple Crown.”

The idea of the new Stars and Stripes Day was twofold: to showcase the two rich, new races for 3-year-olds on grass, the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, and to consolidate previously scattered races into a second big day of stakes racing to “remind people that the Belmont spring meet doesn’t end after Belmont Day,” Panza said.

The inaugural Belmont Derby field is a strong one. Eight of the 11 entrants are graded stakes winners, including three well-regarded Europeans: Toast of New York, the UAE Derby winner, whose handlers wanted firmer ground than what was available in Europe; Gailo Chop, one of France’s top 3-year-olds but ineligible for the classics there because he is a gelding; and the highly regarded Coolmore colt Adelaide. Another French colt, Pornichet, was purchased out of his last start by the legendary Australian trainer Gai Waterhouse.

“This may be her first American starter,” said Panza. “Horses are traveling all over the world, and the United States is being a little bit left behind.”

Having a pair of seven-figure races on grass for 3-year-olds in July gives buyers of foreign horses something to shoot for.

“If someone’s looking at spending $750,000 or a million for a horse,” Panza said, “having a race where you can recoup so much of that is a strong incentive.”

So is the unusual designation of the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks as Grade 1 races for their inaugural runnings. Panza finessed this by technically rescheduling the Grade 1 Jamaica and Grade 1 Garden City into these slots and then renaming the races.

The Saturday card is an appealing one beyond the two new grass races. Three dirt stakes – the Grade 2 Dwyer, Grade 2 Suburban, and Grade 3 Belmont Sprint (formerly the James Marvin) – round out the stakes action and now fall just right on the calendar as preludes to Saratoga stakes such as the Jim Dandy, Whitney, and Vanderbilt.

With two cards at the summer meet drawing comparisons in quality to the Breeders’ Cup, how about having the real thing in New York again one of these decades? NYRA did not apply to host any of the next four Breeders’ Cups, which instead will be run at Santa Anita (2014 and 2016), Keeneland (2015), and Del Mar (2017). So, the soonest the Cup could return to Belmont is 2018, a staggering 13 years since the last one in New York, in 2005 at Belmont. The ownership and operation of the NYRA tracks is in an extended state of limbo, with a temporary “reorganization board” scheduled to create a new private entity by the end of next year. Breath should not be held.

“I don’t think New York is really looking for a Breeders’ Cup right now,” Bill Farish, the Breeders’ Cup chairman, told reporters last week. “When the management thing gets sorted out in 2015, maybe there will be an opportunity.”

It is appalling that political interference has kept Belmont, which should be hosting the Cup every four years, out of the loop for 13 years and counting. The damage to the prestige and prominence of New York racing is incalculable. At least Panza is creating some important and compelling days of all-star racing to tide us over in the meantime.