06/23/2014 1:12PM

Fewer races planned for Saratoga meet

Barbara D. Livingston
A record 420 races, including 411 flat races, were run at Saratoga in 2013.

Saying he wants to emphasize quality over quantity, Martin Panza, the senior vice-president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association, said he plans to run fewer flat races at the upcoming Saratoga meet compared to last year.

By sticking to a program that calls for nine flat races on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, as well as 10 races on most Sundays, Panza expects to run about 15 to 20 fewer flat races than the 411 run in 2013. When the steeplechase races were factored in, Saratoga ran a record 420 races during its 40-day meet in 2013. There will be 12 steeplechase races run this year – three more than last year – one each Wednesday and Thursday.

Steeplechase races will be run at 12:25 p.m. with post time for the first flat race on those days – and virtually all days – set for 1 p.m.

While wagering will continue to be offered on the steeplechase races, they will not be part of the pick five, a wager that will make its Saratoga debut when the meet begins on July 18.

“We’re trying to emphasize quality over quantity,” said Panza, who will be overseeing his first Saratoga meet. “Let’s try and bring back sort of what Saratoga used to be, and that’s not being critical of anybody. We’re trying to run a little different program with a little bit more quality in it, and in doing so you’re going to run less races. On top of that, Saratoga is a wonderful town. You got to be able to go out after the races and go to dinner and enjoy the town and the community.”

Toward the latter point, there will not be any twilight racing cards offered at this meet. Local restaurants have expressed concern about losing business on those Fridays when Saratoga began at 2:30 p.m. and didn’t end until after 7.

Fewer races could mean less handle. Last year, Saratoga handled $586.6 million.

“Well, I know this: When Del Mar went from six days a week to five they actually did better,” Panza said “I’m not saying that that’s going to happen. We’re running a different program, and I’m not writing all these cheap claimers nonwinners of two on the turf and maiden [$20,000 claiming] on the turf. If they want more races then that’s what you have to run, and that’s not the ticket.”

Panza said there could be exceptions on some days to running fewer races. First, there are three Sundays that he will likely have to card 11 or 12 races, owing to the “Jockey Club Tour on Fox” television broadcasts that will emanate from Saratoga on July 20 (5:30-7:30 p.m.), Aug. 10 (5-6:30 p.m.) and Aug. 17 (5-6:30 p.m.)

Second, Panza said if he is filling good races with large fields he will use them.

“If I have four extras that have 12-horse fields I’m not going to sit there and be stubborn and not use those races,” Panza said. “We’ll try to use them on Fridays and Saturdays when we know more people are playing them.”

Panza said improving the quality of racing at Saratoga isn’t something that’s going to happen in one meet.

“It’s going to take a couple of meets to reshape this thing,” he said. “We’re changing, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

On Monday, the NYRA held its annual pre-Saratoga press conference for the local media. It announced its four give-away items, which will be Saratoga baseball caps (July 20), Pilsner glasses (July 27), totebags (Aug. 10), and short-sleeve T-shirts (Aug. 31).