One of Thoroughbred racing’s premier meets gets underway Friday, when the doors open at Saratoga for the track’s 150th anniversary year. Overall, the racing should be hotter than the temperature on opening day (expected to be in the mid-90s), with last year’s Horse of the Year Wise Dan on the grounds for an expected start or two and the winners of all three Triple Crown races training for a match-up in the Midsummer Derby (aka the Travers). Incidentally, all three of those horses competed in maiden races at Saratoga last year, but only Palace Malice won at the track.
It is unfortunate that the first Grade 1 stakes of the meet, the CCA Oaks on Saturday, drew just five fillies. Even the prestige of Saratoga couldn’t attract more than that for a $300,000 purse. Racetracks everywhere are struggling to fill races, especially at the highest level. There are just too many opportunities and not enough horses. It doesn’t help that few owners and trainers are willing to run their best horses very often – some say today’s horses (with today’s drugs) can’t stand up to a steady diet of racing; others say today’s training methods are at fault and that it was the “old school” traditions that led to stronger, healthier horses capable of running more than once every six or seven weeks.
Earlier this month, the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, the last-ever edition of that hallowed event, also drew just five horses – an overwhelming favorite and four overmatched also-rans. On the same day at Belmont Park, only five horses turned up for the Suburban for the same age group as the Hollywood Gold Cup. There have been calls for more coordination of stakes schedules around the country, but with most tracks operating as little fiefdoms there is rarely a mentality of doing anything for the “common good.”
Fewer than 6,500 fans were in attendance at Hollywood Park on Gold Cup day; barely more than 5,000 were at Belmont Park for the Suburban. Another sad commentary on the state of horse racing these days. But Saratoga will attract a lot more people for its five-horse feature on Saturday because it still has the aura of something special. Maybe not as much as it used to, when it was a four-week meeting (remember the August Place to Be?), but the fans still come. Daily average attendance at last year’s meet was more than 22,200, for example.
They come because of the ambience, because of the tradition, because they want to see and be seen. The racing can be excellent, or it can be mediocre. With two separate turf courses, there are a lot of grass races, and they often have full fields. That is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the weather. If it’s a stormy season, races come off the turf, the fields get decimated and handle drops like a stone. Full fields also come from the plethora of races carded for New York-breds – consider that four of the 10 races on Friday are restricted, along with five of 11 on Saturday.
Still, it is the stakes races that draw all the attention – 18 Grade 1 events this season. Hopefully most of them will draw more than five horses. For the fans, the New York Racing Association is going all out to celebrate Saratoga’s 150th anniversary, with numerous special events throughout the meet. You can even pick up a little replica of the track on one of the giveaway days – now that’s a unique idea that honors one of America’s greatest sporting venues.