09/04/2014 11:37AM

Crist: Spa had quality over quantity


Was the Saratoga meeting, which ended Monday, a successful one? That depends on your definition of a successful Saratoga.

If it’s all about the pari-mutuel activity, the 2.5 percent decline in total handle was a small disappointment, though a 1.7 percent reduction in races run accounts for most of that falloff. If you still believe in turnstiles, an alleged 12 percent jump in attendance would have been huge news if it were more than an accounting trick.

The New York Racing Association made a perfectly reasonable decision in changing the way it counts customers, by including season-pass holders in the tally each day whether or not they actually were on the grounds. This is completely consistent with what professional sports teams do, which is why games are routinely announced as sellouts even though there are clearly thousands of empty seats.

NYRA got itself in some hot water, though, especially with the attendance-obsessed upstate press, when it revealed that decision only after complaints from reporters that there was obviously some exaggeration or error afoot. There were weekdays when the turnout was sparse but the head count was allegedly up 10 or 15 percent over the previous year. Next time, it might be wise to report any methodological changes before, rather than during, the meeting.

The most important criteria for determining a successful Saratoga should not be the fungible metric of attendance or slight variations in handle that can be unduly affected by weather and other random factors. What matters most is the racing, and it seemed like it was the best it has been in years.

Gone were the endless afternoons dominated by conditioned-claiming races and turf sprints. Instead, there was a return of that onetime staple, the open claiming race, which we had been told in the past could no longer fill. In fact, these were some of the best races of the meeting, drawing big fields and fresh faces. There also were some commendable first steps in trying to return longer-distance racing to the mix, with 10-furlong dirt races and 12-furlong grass races returning to the non-stakes menu.

So, now it’s on to the 38-day Belmont fall meeting, which began Friday and runs through Oct. 26. It has a very different pace to it after Saratoga. There are 18 graded stakes on the menu, seven of them Grade 1. Saratoga, by contrast, had 33 graded stakes, 15 of them Grade 1, in 40 days.

The very biggest races of the Belmont meeting are slightly more important than their Saratoga counterparts because they are closer to the Breeders’ Cup and year-end championship awards. The Jockey Club Gold Cup and Beldame mean a bit more than the Woodward and Personal Ensign, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Flower Bowl trump the Sword Dancer and Diana, and the Champagne and Frizette are bigger next steps after the Hopeful and Spinaway.

Blink, however, and you might miss them. Those seven Grade 1 races are all run on just two days – the Beldame, Flower Bowl, Vosburgh, Turf Classic, and Gold Cup are all Sept. 27, and the Champagne and Frizette come a week later Oct. 4.

Durkin: One more great call

The ceremonies last Sunday honoring the extraordinary race-caller Tom Durkin, who retired after more than two decades as the voice of New York racing, were genuine and widely appreciated, as was Durkin’s farewell speech after calling the Spinaway. They don’t put announcers in the Hall of Fame, but Durkin’s closing words belong on a plaque posted somewhere prominent at the shrine across the street from the track:

“There is one person that is completely and entirely responsible for this wonderful life that I’ve had the privilege to live in horse racing, and I’m happy to say that that person is right here in Saratoga today. He’s in the backyard, on a picnic bench underneath a pine tree, probably looking up at this very image right now. And she’s at the top of the stretch leaning over the rail, in the clubhouse, in a box seat, in a OTB parlor in Syracuse, at a track in Ohio, in front of a computer terminal in California.

“And that person who I owe an inexpressible gratitude to is you, the racing fan, the horseplayer.”