07/16/2014 2:08PM

Saratoga placing even greater emphasis on quality

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Barbara D. Livingston
The New York Racing Association has shifted its focus this summer for Saratoga, placing an emphasis on quality of racing over quantity of races.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The 146th meeting at Saratoga could answer these questions: Is less more, and will more mean less?

Hoping to emphasize quality over quantity at the 40-day Saratoga meet that begins Friday, the New York Racing Association plans to run approximately 15 to 20 fewer races than the 420 conducted in 2013. Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, said he wants to write fewer cheaper races if possible, but he also knows he’s dealing with a foal crop that has shrunk over the last several years, making for fewer high-level horses.

“It’s going to be a process over the next couple of years to try and slowly change to the program that we want,” Panza said Wednesday at an opening-day press conference. “We started doing it at Belmont Park. We’ll carry it through here at Saratoga. There’s a fine line for all of American racing on the right amount of races to run. We’re fortunate that Saratoga draws a lot of the best horses in the country up here, and I feel very confident we can put on a good show.”

While there will be less flat racing, there will be more steeplechase racing at this year’s meet – 12 races compared to nine in previous years. The steeplechase events will take place every Wednesday and Thursday, and first post those days will be 12:25 p.m. First post for the first flat race every day – except Travers Day – will be 1 p.m.

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Meanwhile, it will cost more money to attend a day of racing at Saratoga this year. Clubhouse admission has been raised from $5 to $8, while grandstand admission has gone from $3 to $5. On Travers Day, Aug. 23, general admission will be $10, up from $5, and clubhouse admission will be $15, up from $10. Reserved seats in both the grandstand and clubhouse have gone up $2 from last year as well.

It remains to be seen how the decrease in races and increase in pricing will affect business. Last year, Saratoga averaged $14.6 million in daily handle, $3.6 million on track, while attendance averaged 21,679.

“It may mean in 2014 that our handle may be down a bit because we have fewer races, but we believe it’s the right thing to do, and in 2015, we’ll see an increase in that handle,” NYRA president and CEO Chris Kay said Wednesday.

Kay said NYRA hadn’t increased admission prices in 10 years, and he doesn’t feel the increase will cut down on attendance – especially tourists who pay exorbitant hotel and restaurant prices.

“I think we’ll see the same number of people we’ve had in the past that came in from Boston or from Buffalo, and the modest price increase will not have an impact on them,” Kay said.

As a way to ease the increases, NYRA, in partnership with a local convenience store, has offered a season pass that offers reduced cost. As of Wednesday, NYRA had sold 4,631 season passes compared to 1,400 last year.

NYRA has spent $2 million in improvements at Saratoga, installing 750 new HD televisions and improving the sound system. The picnic area will have 100 new tables, making it more congested than in past years.

The winner’s circle will be less congested, as it has been widened by 5 1/2 feet.

The racing should be as good as it gets. There will be 33 graded stakes – 15 of which are Grade 1’s – with total purses of $17.45 million. Following on its business model at Belmont Park, NYRA has enhanced two of its biggest days. The Whitney Handicap had its purse doubled to $1.5 million, and that Aug. 2 card will include the Grade 1, $500,000 Test and the Grade 1, $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt, as well as two additional $100,000 stakes.

The Travers had its purse raised 25 percent to $1.25 million, and that Aug. 23 card will include the Grade 1, $500,000 King’s Bishop, the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina, and the Grade 2, $250,000 Ballston Spa.

Last year, the Travers had Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice. California Chrome, this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, will not be participating in the Travers, though the Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist is slated for both the $600,000 Jim Dandy on July 27 and the Travers.

This Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks lost top 3-year-old filly Untapable – who is running July 27 in the Haskell at Monmouth Park – but she could come back Aug. 16 for the Alabama.

Wise Dan, the two-time defending Horse of the Year, also could run here at the meet. He missed 3 1/2 weeks of training after undergoing emergency colic surgery in mid-May. He arrived here Monday and, depending on how he trains, could seek a third straight victory Aug. 9 in the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap. Other options include the Bernard Baruch Handicap on turf or the Woodward on dirt. Both races are run Aug. 30.