03/05/2010 12:00AM

NYRA does good job juggling stakes


NEW YORK -The New York Racing Association finally released the stakes schedules for the Belmont spring-summer and Saratoga meetings this past week, and there are some significant changes to the familiar landscape of major racing fixtures in New York.

The most notable is moving the Coaching Club American Oaks, first run at Belmont in 1917, to the opening Saturday of the Saratoga meet, which has been expanded from 36 to 40 days this year.

This looks like a good move on several fronts. The Oaks had been languishing on closing weekend at Belmont and will receive a lot more attention this way; its new distance of 1 1/8 miles links it nicely to the 1 1/4-mile Alabama at Saratoga four weeks later, especially since no one uses the Test to prep for the Alabama any more; and it creates an opportunity to package the Mother Goose, CCA Oaks, and Alabama as a strong summer series.

The Oaks shift was a simple transfer of one race prompted by the Saratoga expansion, but the other changes were driven by a desire to save money without cutting overnight purses, due to NYRA's cash-flow concerns stemming from the delays in the Aqueduct racino and New York City OTB's bankruptcy filing. So the Belmont spring-summer meet will offer 33 stakes races worth $7.4 million, down from 36 stakes worth $8.5 million last year. Saratoga will run 52 stakes worth $10.8 million, as opposed to 48 stakes worth $11.1 million in 2009.

The combined $1.4 million in savings comes from a combination of purse reductions and outright cancellations. The Alabama and the Metropolitan, New York, and Suburban handicaps all got $100,000 haircuts, and a raft of races, including eight other Grade 1 events (the Ballerina, Forego, Hopeful, King's Bishop, Mother Goose, Ogden Phipps, Prioress, and Spinaway) all got $50,000 trims.

Five other longstanding graded events simply won't be run this year: the Go for Wand, Nassau County, Peter Pan, Poker, and Tom Fool are "on hiatus" for 2010, a term of art that allows them to keep their graded status if they are reinstituted in 2011. For this year, the Dwyer will be moved from July to May to serve the Peter Pan's role as the local prep for the Belmont Stakes. The Ruffian Handicap is being moved from Belmont to Saratoga's second weekend to take the slot of the recently downgraded Go for Wand.

While finances were the impetus for this round of changes, they probably were coming anyway. With a smaller annual crop of horses making fewer starts per year, there probably are just too many stakes races on every circuit's calendar, scheduled too closely together. While this is good for the resumes of future broodmares who pick up catalog-page black type in five-horse races, it's bad for everyone else from tracks to customers.

NYRA will not release its fall stakes schedule until July, by which time there could be a new issue on the table: Despite opposition from most horsemen and fans, the Breeders' Cup appears hellbent on relocating its races to California permanently, which would anger the rest of the nation's track operators and might recast the entire look of fall racing in the years ahead.

"We've done a lot of things just to be part of the road to the Breeders' Cup," one NYRA official said recently, "With the expectation that we would host the races every few years. If it turns out that the road to the Breeders' Cup never ends in New York again, we may do things a lot differently."

Gulfstream needs to protect bettors

Twice this winter, bettors at Gulfstream Park have been understandably outraged when races have been switched from grass to dirt in the middle of multirace sequences. Horseplayers had bought their tickets thinking races were on the grass, then were stuck with grass horses in dirt races or switched to losing favorites when their grass selections were scratched. On Feb. 27, the last race of the day (and last leg of the pick four and pick six) was moved from grass to dirt only seven minutes before post time.

This was not only completely unfair to multirace bettors, but also completely unnecessary. Florida, and every other racing state, needs to adopt the rule in New York that any such switched race is declared an "all" result for multirace bets that closed before the surface switch was announced. There is absolutely no downside to instituting such a rule, and no excuse for Gulfstream and other tracks not to make this a priority before it happens again.