Updated on 09/17/2011 10:55PM

NYRA's stakes shuffle a good call


NEW YORK - The New York Racing association made a bad call Thursday, cancelling Friday's Aqueduct card nearly 24 hours before post time due to bad touting from the meteorologists. Apparently "three to six inches of snow and sleet" is weathermanese for "clear and sunny."

But NYRA made dozens of good calls Wednesday, announcing a 2006 stakes schedule full of significant revisions that will jar some traditionalists but were mostly necessary and overdue.

Fifty stakes races were reduced in value by a total of $3.5 million, with $1.6 million of that coming from six-figure reductions to 11 Grade 1 fixtures: the Jockey Club Gold Cup was lowered by $250,000 to $750,000; the Coaching Club American Oaks was slashed 40 percent from $500,000 to $300,000; the Alabama, Beldame, Flower Bowl, Met Mile, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic were cut by $150,000 each; and the Champagne, Frizette, Suburban, and Vosburgh each took $100,000 whacks.

It is difficult to argue that a single horse will pass up one of the events because of the purse cuts. While no one likes seeing owners take a financial hit, many of these purses had grown out of all proportion to inflation or competitive necessity over the last decade.

What motivated the cuts, of course, was not any embarrassment over paying out too much purse money but the economic and political realities of NYRA's current precarious position. Track officials say they will be out of operating funds before the end of the year without state assistance such as a tax deferral or permission to sell unneeded land parcels. They have been meeting with bankruptcy attorneys and judges as they face a potential $15 million shortfall until slot-machine revenues kick in beginning in 2007.

The purse cuts give both NYRA's dire circumstances and its willingness to cooperate on a solution needed credibility in the eyes of some politicians who, fairly or not, regard the outfit as a bunch of bluebloods writing one another checks for winning big races. Even if much of the overall purse reductions are merely redirected to overnight stakes races, which officials hope to do as finances ease, the money will be more broadly distributed.

Another nine stakes races were eliminated entirely, including some familiar old names such as the Cowdin, Astarita, and Lawrence Realization. While some of their vintage runnings are fondly remembered, these races had largely outlived their usefulness. The Cowdin and Astarita had slipped out of the progression of 2-year-old stakes due to wider spacing and the trend toward racing juveniles later and more lightly, while the Lawrence Realization has lost its appeal in the face of new and richer grass races for 3-year-olds at other tracks.

The most startling change was one with no economic or political motivations: The Woodward Stakes, a Belmont Park mainstay since 1954, will be run a week earlier and 180 miles to the north next year, moving from opening weekend at Belmont to closing weekend at Saratoga.

The announced reason was to relieve "congestion" among the major races for older horses, but that was accomplished simply by eliminating the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, a race that was not attracting either Whitney or Woodward horses. It has as much to do with finally shoring up closing weekend at Saratoga, which has been a jumble of experiments ever since the meet was extended through Labor Day. Now, the holiday weekend features four Grade 1 races, with the Spinaway having regained its Grade 1 ranking and with the Hopeful having been properly moved off the Travers undercard.

The Woodward in one sense was a race that seems to have needed no tinkering. It was the race of the year in 2004 when Ghostzapper edged Saint Liam, and almost certainly produced another Horse of the Year this year with Saint Liam's victory. On the other hand, the 2005 Woodward field consisted of just five horses from only two trainers and was run before a "crowd" of 8,365. The previous Saturday at Saratoga, where a lackluster Forego Handicap was the feature, the turnout was 19,002.

The Spinaway and Hopeful now will once again be the third stakes for each juvenile division at the Saratoga meeting. After two seasons of running the preceding 2-year-old stakes only in alternate years, the full slate has been restored, with the Saratoga Special, Sanford, and Hopeful for colts, and the Schuylerville, Adirondack, and Spinaway for fillies.

Closing weekend at Saratoga should now be a highlight of the meeting, provided that the state doesn't let NYRA run out of money by then, and that the forecasters don't call for perfect Labor Day weather - in which case it will surely snow.