07/23/2012 1:06PM

Crist: Saratoga off to a good start, but uncertainty looms

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bern Identity, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, wins the Sanford Stakes. The meet is off to a good start in part because of a new bonus system intended to attract quality 2-year-old horses like Bern Identity.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The 144th summer of racing at Saratoga has begun as if it could be the best one yet. The daily purses, enhanced by revenue from the Aqueduct racino, are the highest for any track in the history of American racing, and that has led to full and competitive fields at every level of the game.

Let’s savor that good news for a few moments, because it may not last.

Saratoga’s racing, while still the premier meet in the sport, had been looking a little frayed in recent years, with stagnant purses and field sizes. The plant needs major overhauls, which will begin – or at least were supposed to begin – after this year’s meet, with major upgrades in place by next summer. The first thing to do, however, was to shore up the racing, and the new purses have made running here irresistible. Maiden races that were worth $52,000 are going for $80,000 this season. Allowance races have purses as high as $95,000.

Two-year-old racing had been on the decline due to a variety of factors, but it had been getting to the point where it was unclear that Saratoga could continue to present three meaningful stakes races in each juvenile division (the Sanford, Saratoga Special, and Hopeful for colts and the Schuylerville, Adirondack, and Spinaway for fillies). Maiden races at the Belmont meet preceding Saratoga weren’t filling, and there weren’t enough stakes-ready prospects for Saratoga. So NYRA instituted a clever new bonus program to get 2-year-olds to come to New York for maiden races before the meet, offering a $100,000 bonus to any juvenile who won a maiden race downstate, then won a graded stakes race in New York.

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It worked immediately, with strong fields in both the opening-day Schuylerville and Sunday’s Sanford. Bern Identity, the Sanford winner, came for the race only because of the bonus scheme, which had attracted him to Belmont to win a maiden race and then to Saratoga for the Sanford.

It has been a heartening start, promising the kind of a meeting that both the operators and fans of New York racing have been dreaming of for more than a decade, through a bitter fight to retain the racing franchise, after battles with the now mercifully defunct New York City Offtrack Betting Corporation, and amid countless delays in the opening of the Aqueduct facility. It should be a time of satisfaction and celebration.

Instead, however, it is a meeting enveloped in apprehension and uncertainty because almost as soon as it is over on Labor Day, the state of New York, in its infinite wisdom, is poised to blow it all up.

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is taking over the New York Racing Association sometime this fall, when he will appoint the majority of a newly constituted board of directors of the New York Racing Association, with only five of NYRA’s current board members allowed to continue serving. His appointees on the Franchise Oversight Board said they are reconsidering the allotment of racino revenue to racing and have threatened to suspend it. Cuomo’s lieutenants have said that key members of current management will be replaced right after Saratoga and that the new board will conduct a nationwide search for new executives.

Much of the gossip around the track and the town’s watering holes is about who these new board members will be. The names being floated are typically disheartening: political operatives between state appointments, former legislators, deep-pocketed political donors, minor celebrities who have never operated so much as a lemonade stand – most of them people with little knowledge or respect for racing.

Cuomo has yet to articulate a single goal or vision for racing in New York, a single thought about what if anything he thinks needs to be changed, other than that it would all somehow be better off with his cronies in charge. He also has said or done nothing to dispel widespread concern that he’d be perfectly happy if horse racing disappeared in New York, replaced by full-scale casino gambling.

So it seems destined to be a summer where there is a successful race meet with excellent sport, but with an ax hanging over everyone’s head. Every employee is nervous about whether he’ll have a job this fall, the horsemen are worried that the higher purses will disappear, and Saratoga residents and town officials are fearful that charitable and cultural institutions supported by NYRA racing for decades are now in jeopardy. The customers have no idea what to expect. We might as well just enjoy the improved sport, for as long as it lasts.

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