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.”

Tom Hofner More than 1 year ago
I wonder how the lack of any massive pick-6 carryover pools impacted the handle? Seems like last year there were at least one or two 3-day carryovers which yielded very large pools. Also, the closing of account wagering in the state of Texas must have impacted all-source handle. I know this guy here did not get to play the Spa or Del Mar nearly as much as in past years. Which is a shame.
Caliman More than 1 year ago
Quality over quantity sounds nice, but a casual one a week better like me wants a large field for my entertainment dollar. It is so bad in NY fields with good horses are usually 6 or 5 horse fields in the 3rd race. They even know that is what the betters do not want so they move these races with the claimers early in the card. I live on the West Coast, and do not even try to bet the first 6 races at WC tracks because of small fields and usually bet the East and Midwest tracks because of large fields and opportunities to take advantage of overlays. GIVE ME LARGE FIELDS AND I AM HAPPY.
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
Well stated
Robynrokn More than 1 year ago
Wish we could say similar about DRF and it's new "live" ??? odds that don't work.
Bryan Langlois More than 1 year ago
Durkin should be in the hall of fame. We..the fan and horseplayers...can all help in that effort by signing this petition to work to get him there...please sign and share it http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/put-tom-durkin-in-the-hall-of-fame
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Could DRF make the font for the "new entries" any smaller?
Sal Carcia More than 1 year ago
When the meet was over, I was feeling the meet ended too quickly. And that is a good thing!
David More than 1 year ago
During the running of the race, I could not find the fractions on the large video screen left of the tote board. They may have been on it and perhaps I just didn't see them. I did see the fractional times on the right video screen. I also had a hard time reading the payoffs on that large left video screen. I miss the old small monitors that were attached to the iron supports in the middle of each section in the grandstand. They had been replaced several years ago by speakers. Simulcasting in the carousel area after the live races did not have any self teller machines on. The only ones I could find working were way over in the old Jim Dandy bar. alydarguido
jon g More than 1 year ago
Too much chalk,low payoffs
Boyd Cord More than 1 year ago
I think Saratoga and Belmont is far superior to anything I've seen including Europe and Australia
Pagani Zonda More than 1 year ago
You have to be a troll. Have you been to Goodwood, or Ascot?, Flemington?. Those courses are world class with WORLDCLASS racing. What is world class about a bunch of sprints and 9f handicap races?...at Saratoga.
Bryan E More than 1 year ago
i thought almost all comments on here were from trolls or shills.
MICHEL More than 1 year ago
Dude, please go to ShaTin in Hong Kong to really watch superior horse racing
Van Cushny More than 1 year ago
You obviously have not been to Chantilly, Longchamp or Auteuil.
Peter Applebee More than 1 year ago
Steve Nyra has again mislead people - attendance does matter - it's an indication of support and when the first two weekdays generated attendance numbers if 9k and barely over 8k they changed the way the count attendance and have not be truthful about it- while this is not stealing money from horseplayers like the former leadership - it is a problem. Also they shold look long and hard at those early meet numbers before backing it up further towards July 4th,