10/07/2009 11:00PM

Saratoga must balance finances and quality


NEW YORK - In the middle of a week in which there was more than enough to talk about in the world of racing - from Sea the Stars's impressive Arc victory last Sunday to Zenyatta's bid for a 13-for-13 record amid nine Grade 1 races this Saturday - racing fans, at least in New York, were suddenly more concerned about which track would be open next July 23 through July 26.

Such is the power of Saratoga.

The announcement was made Wednesday that Saratoga would open five days earlier than expected, adding four racing dates to the beginning of a meet that will now run for 40 rather than 36 days. The 2010 version of Saratoga will begin on a Friday, July 23, and close after the racing on Labor Day, Monday Sept. 6.

The decision to expand the meet - which over two decades has grown from 24 to 30 to 36 and now 40 dates - followed a successful 2009 meet, or at least a successful one in comparison to business in the rest of the sport. Nationally, wagering was down 12.5 percent from last year this August, and Del Mar shaved its schedule from six to five days a week, but Saratoga all-sources handle was down only 1.7 percent from 2008 and ontrack business was off just 2.2 percent.

"Going into this year's Saratoga meet, we predicted that wagering would decline approximately 5 percent from last year. We greatly exceeded those expectations," said Charlie Hayward, the track's president.

By purely business standards, the decision to expand is a virtual no-brainer. The four extra days at Saratoga will outdraw and outhandle the corresponding dates that were run at Belmont this year. The slowest day of the Saratoga meet draws more bodies than any day at Belmont except for Belmont Stakes Day. Not surprisingly, Saratoga merchants, hoteliers, and landlords have been unanimous in supporting the latest expansion.

The concerns are not financial but aesthetic. Is Saratoga, beloved for a quality that stems in part from its brevity, spreading itself too thin?

Two decades ago, Saratoga ran 24 days of nine-race cards, a total of 216 races in a year when there were more than 74,000 races in North America. Next year, Saratoga will stage more than 400 races from a national pool of about 45,000 - meaning one out of every 112 North American races next year will be run at Saratoga as opposed to 1 in 343 two decades ago.

While it's probably true that veterans romanticize the quality of those 216-card meetings, it's also true that the track has had to turn to lower-level racing to sustain six (and now nearly seven) weeks of six-day-a-week racing. Maiden-claiming races, once banned from the meeting, are now run frequently, along with numerous conditioned claiming races and an ever-increasing number of statebred races and turf sprints.

When Saratoga was merely four weeks, every schoolchild from Albany to Montreal could tell you that its four Saturdays were known as Whitney Day, Alabama Day, Travers Day, and Hopeful Day. Now you'd have to consult a timetable to see that, as things now stand, the seven Saturdays of Saratoga 2010 will probably be headlined by the CCA Oaks, Diana, Whitney, Sword Dancer, Alabama, Travers, and Woodward.

Or maybe not. One advantage of the expansion to seven weekends could be some overdue rethinking of the stakes schedule and rearranging some of the races. It might also be time to tinker with the distances of some historic fixtures to avoid having identical races a month apart.

Now that the CCA Oaks and Woodward have been moved north, the meet has a pair of 10-furlong races for 3-year-old fillies (Oaks/Alabama) and of nine-furlong races for older males (Whitney/Woodward). Making the first one nine furlongs and the latter 10 furlongs might be more interesting and would mirror the distances of major races for 3-year-old males (Jim Dandy/Travers) and older females (Go for Wand/Personal Ensign.)

Saratoga can probably stand four more days without losing its enduring charm. NYRA's announcement that the 40-day schedule would be in place for "the foreseeable future" is good news and means that this is the end of the era of expansion, but track officials should also keep an open mind about cutting back if its golden goose starts showing signs of fatigue.