08/12/2005 12:00AM

Even Saratoga has its down days


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The racing has been spotty, live and simulcast business are down despite unusually good weather, and dinner reservations are easier to come by than usual. Has Saratoga peaked?

To some extent, finding any fault with the business and racing here seems a bit like complaining about the coarseness of the beluga caviar on a luxury cruise. Saratoga remains the best race meeting of the year and a place of exceptional charm and appeal. Its best days, like last Saturday's excellent Whitney card, are among the very best of the year anywhere.

Still, there are some worrisome signs that suggest Saratoga, long considered a bulletproof phenomenon unto itself, is not immune to the factors that have caused downturns in the racing industry both downstate and across the country.

Track officials expected a sharp decline in interstate and total handle this year because New York cut off 10 rebate shops earlier this year, leading to a 10 percent drop in interstate handle at Belmont and an 8 percent falloff here. A year ago, those 10 shops alone bet $51 million on Saratoga races. Unlike most of the nation's tracks, which have resumed doing business with many of the rebaters, New York has continued the cutoff, citing integrity concerns but actually having no real choice because of the strong anti-rebating positions of its court-appointed monitor and federal prosecutors in New York.

The declines in the live business were less expected, and while they have been in the low single-digits thus far, the concern is that they have happened at all, given the unusual weather. In the first 15 days of racing here, there has been one brief thunderstorm and only a single turf race moved to the main track. At this point a year ago, nine such races had been moved, and there had been four days of sloppy or muddy tracks.

The lack of weather-related excuses has made the decline in both field size and race quality all the more disturbing. Most of the open allowance races on the dirt have drawn fields of six or fewer, and the weekday cards have been loaded with statebred maidens, apparently the only plentiful part of the horse population. There were four five-furlong races for New York-bred 2-year-olds alone Wednesday and Thursday. Purses are up 4 percent over last year, but field size and betting interests are down by roughly the same amount.

This is a continuation of what happened at the Belmont spring-summer meeting and may in part be attributable to the NYRA's security-barn program and competition in the claiming ranks from other Eastern tracks subsidized by slot-machine revenues. This is also a national phenomenon, however, in which racing dates remain plentiful while fewer horses are making fewer starts.

"I think it's less the security-barn issue and more the horse shortage issue everywhere," said Bill Nader, NYRA's senior vice president. "You look what's happened at other tracks and we're actually doing pretty well being down from 995 to 955 starters so far. What really kills you is the four-horse fields in key spots on your card, and we've had a couple of those."

Short fields may seem to work to horsemen's advantage in the short term, but they become the catalyst for a downward economic spiral. Small fields attract less betting and drive some players away from the game entirely, leading to smaller handle, which will eventually necessitate purse cuts.

Some see the long-term picture for purses as brighter because of slots subsidies, which already account for over 10 percent of purses nationwide, a figure that will grow when slots come to New York at Aqueduct in 2006 and, in all likelihood, to Kentucky before the end of the decade. The problem with seeing slots-subsidized purses as a panacea is twofold. First, it is an unstable source of revenue that can be taken away legislatively as quickly as it has been given. Also, investing slots subsidies entirely into purses, without similar upgrades in facilities and customer services, does not do enough to retain existing customers or attract new ones. Four-horse fields running for higher purses in the backyards of racinos is not a vision of a healthy business.

New York has a chance to do it differently. The process of putting the NYRA franchise up for bid over the next two years will involve wholesale revision of the racing statutes and the distribution of slots revenues within the racing industry. The architects of that legislation and prospective franchise operators may want to look at the Saratoga 2005 results to see that even the best racing in the country needs a strong product and customer support to prosper, not just more purse money.