It’s been a rough winter for racing enthusiasts – many tracks have lost days due to bad weather and the cold and snowy conditions in many parts of the country make you long for spring. The New York Racing Association has provided a lot more to look forward to with recent announcements regarding Belmont Park’s spring/summer meet.
Belmont Stakes day on June 7 will be an embarrassment of riches. In what will now be the second most lucrative day of racing in this country, NYRA packed the card with a plethora of stakes options worth $7.7 million. The total purses for the day will be $8 million; only Breeders’ Cup Saturday offers more purse money.
In addition to the newly-enriched traditional Belmont Stakes day co-features, the card will include some of Belmont’s other signature events, also with significantly enhanced purses. These include the $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap, formerly the Memorial Day headliner, and the $1 million Ogden Phipps, plus the Acorn, Brooklyn and Jaipur.
Four weeks later, Belmont will host the inaugural Stars & Stripes day on July 5. It features two million-dollar races, both turf stakes transplanted from the fall schedule and renamed the Belmont Derby Invitational and Belmont Oaks. The day also includes the Suburban and Dwyer, traditional holiday features, and another transplanted and renamed race, this one borrowed from Saratoga and renamed the Belmont Sprint Championship.
These aren’t the only changes for the meet, but they are the most significant. How will these two “super days” perform compared to the rest of the meet? Belmont Stakes day is the only day in New York racing that has the potential to attract a crowd in excess of 100,000 if, and only if, there is a Triple Crown on the line. It falls far short of that if not. And most weekends during the spring/summer meet don’t draw much of a crowd. Will the blockbuster days bring in incremental attendance? Or will fans bypass more “ordinary” weekends and wait for the big days? Does it matter as long as the overall numbers are good?
It’s a tough call. If there’s one thing events like the Triple Crown show, fans still come to the races if the attraction is big enough. So in that sense I applaud NYRA for shaking things up. Still, I almost want to compare it to big lottery jackpots – as jackpots get bigger, no one wants to play at lower levels. Even $100 million jackpots are boring when there’s half a billion up for grabs from time to time. On an annual basis, those big jackpots can drive total sales to new heights – but if two or three enormous jackpots don’t come up in a given year, then overall sales suffer. Should a few big race days similarly support the rest of the year? Can these days bring in new fans that come back for more, or are we still left with just a few hardy souls wandering around the cavernous Belmont Park on most days?
And how about the fields for all these races? In recent years, stakes races at Belmont in June and early July often end up short, with four- or five-horse fields despite big purses. That’s not isolated to New York of course, as similar conditions exist across the country. Still, you get the impression that owners and trainers are just biding their time until Saratoga, bypassing some of the Belmont events which used to be on everyone’s schedule. The money is there this year, but is it enough?
Clearly there are many more questions than there are answers. It does make you wonder what changes are in store for Saratoga, the jewel in NYRA’s crown, and for the Belmont Park fall meet. Does NYRA dare mess with the Saratoga calendar? After all, everyone wants to see and be seen at Saratoga. Belmont fall is another story – the Jockey Club Gold Cup anchors the meet with a big day of its own. But two of the fall meet’s Grade 1 races were moved to Stars & Stripes day and renamed. So there will certainly be additional shuffling of the schedule come September. It will be quite interesting to see what is brewing in the racing office, and what the overall impacts for the year will be.