Updated on 08/18/2013 11:50PM

Steven Crist: Are there too many races at Saratoga?


Are there too many races at Saratoga?

This week, there were 11 on Thursday, 10 carded for Friday, 12 for Saturday, and 11 for Sunday. Back in the days of the classic 24-day Saratoga meeting, there were nine every day, even on Travers Day. You knew going into the meeting that Saratoga would consist of precisely 216 races, a number that has now grown to more than 400, not only because of the extension to 40 days but also with a nine-race card being the exception rather than the rule.

You can argue the question both ways, but it’s an argument worth having.

Proponents of the more-more-more position say that in the absence of a law requiring patrons to bet on every race, why should anyone object? If nine a day is your limit, you can always skip a few, and why deprive those who can’t get enough of getting a few more?

The more-is-less advocates say that the extra races dilute the overall product, making Saratoga less special and some afternoons more reminiscent of Aqueduct than Ascot. Eliminating the two or three worst races every day would make the meeting shinier, cut down on the workload for handicappers, and those who can’t get enough can always play simulcasts.

There is philosophical merit to both positions, but less to the actual reason that more-more-more is prevailing. The long days with extra races are not the result of a decision of what is best for the sport and the patrons, but the legacy of a dysfunctional relationship between the New York Racing Association and the state government.

Until a year ago, when the state seized control of NYRA for what is supposed to be a three-year transition before it is returned to private control, NYRA was under constant political pressure to maximize revenue. Any deviation from prior-year figures was an easy opening for politicians to demand that its franchise be revoked and that the tracks be turned over to casino operators, sport and history be damned. Milking the captive Saratoga audience for another one or two or three races worth of handle a day was the lowest-hanging fruit. The operating philosophy became to run as many races as the horse population would allow.

It’s a hard habit to break – it’s as if no one got the memo that there have been two major underlying changes. First, NYRA no longer has to squeeze every last dollar it can wring out of Saratoga to build up purse money for the rest of the year, because thanks to Aqueduct racino revenues, it has more purse money than it needs to offer the nation’s highest purses. Second, the state can no longer blame an independent NYRA for not wringing those dollars out because NYRA is now the state.

We saw the benefits of those changes in the past year when Aqueduct received approval from its board to go to eight rather than nine races a day during the dead of winter, or run four days a week rather than five, several years after it should have done so. The cards would be better and tighter and no one would complain that there wasn’t enough action: You can still run two pick fours and a pick six on an eight-race card. The state-controlled board approved the idea, albeit under a fatuous “safety” argument, but it was a sign that it was now permissible to do what was best for the game, even at the expense of the almighty bottom line.

That, rather than writing as many races as you can, should be the new modus operandi. It’s hard to argue that we need afternoons like the one last week when there were four consecutive conditioned-claiming races for 1-for-lifetime and 2-for-lifetime bottom-rung claimers. Saratoga can’t be all stakes races, but it should never feature a two-hour stretch like that. Nor should every weekend card be seen as an opportunity to put on a six-hour, 11- or 12-race program.

The surplus of casino revenues and lack of an antagonistic presence in Albany could and should be an opportunity to experiment. Maybe the July portion of the meeting could go back to nine-race cards, letting the meet build some momentum and building up a surplus of ready horses for a busier August. Twilight racing – well-liked by patrons but disliked by local businesses because it keeps people at the track instead of on Broadway on lucrative Friday evenings – might work very nicely for everyone with an abbreviated race card. A really good six-race card starting on a Friday at 4 p.m. might sound crazy at first, but with the rare opportunity to try it, why not?