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Monday, January 31, 2005

2,984 - oh my!!

- We had family over for dinner last night, and my girlfriend, claiming that I was bugging her during the preparations, forced me to go out to Aqueduct yesterday. Walked in on a decent winter’s day to what seemed to be the usual weekend day crowd. The standards of what constitutes “usual” has of course diminished over the years, and what would in the past seem like a small collection of cars in the lot is just normal now.

But what is normal? I generally don’t look at the attendance figures anymore because they’re too depressing, but I did happen to catch the figure for yesterday, and was stunned to see that it was 2,984. On a Sunday with the weather about as good as it gets in mid-winter here. No football. In New York City. And I doubt that any horseplayers were home watching coverage of the Iraqi elections.

Several years ago, NYRA attempted to stop even announcing attendance figures, but quickly relented. I suppose on-track attendance is pretty irrelevant these days. Yesterday’s on-track handle of just under $800,000 was dwarfed by the total all-sources handle of over $8 million (not including, of course, the rebate shops cut off by NYRA). Perhaps new fans can and are being created by the likes of TVG. But to the veteran track-going horseplayer, desolate racetracks are disheartening and depressing.

To me, the really ironic thing about this is that back in the days where you could likely find 2,984 fans in the third floor clubhouse alone, the track was often not a very pleasant place to be. To play the horses one often had to spend a good deal of the day standing on lines amidst choking cigarette and cigar smoke – separate lines for each kind of bet! If you wanted to bet a horse to win and back it up with exotics bets (on the few races of the day that actually offered exotic wagering), you had to stand in the $2 win ticket line (or $5/$10/$20 for bigger “punchers”), and then brave the exacta or triple (9th race only) line, where you were likely to get stuck behind someone betting every possible combination. As a win-only bettor in those days, I was horrified when the windows switched to “all bets,” which meant that I was now subject to getting stuck behind one of those guys. If you were lucky to have a winner, you’d first have to go to the cashing windows on the other side of the mutual bays, and expect a long wait if the winner was a popular one….unless you waited too long, in which case you’d have to go to a special window for past races. Whatsmore, if you were there on a day with a parade of short fields or heavy favorites, sitting out the race meant…..sitting. Or standing, with no alternatives to wager on via simulcasting.

Today, the track couldn’t possibly be a more pleasant place to spend your wagering day, even at Aqueduct, where many areas haven’t been renovated in probably 20 years. (‘The Port Authority with horses,’ a recent description I’ve read). Smoke-free, action from all the major tracks around the country (well, not quite in New York, a subject for another post, but Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita serve quite well thank you); for a couple extra bucks, your own little space with your own TV/betting machine; and “I got shut out” is no longer a valid excuse…..not even at Saratoga, where even on the most crowded days, anyone can find an empty betting machine and/or window with just a little effort and ingenuity. All the people who used to grumble, often with good reason, “the lines are too long,” or “there’s too much time between races” would have a ball now. Where are they? Probably no longer amongst us!

- RELATED – next time you visit Railbird, which you should regularly, check out, in "The Gallery," "When the crowds were big: Photos of Suffolk Downs from the 1930s-70s." Crowds of 30,000 for opening day, wow!

- GARY BOULANGER is in critical condition and underwent brain surgery after a spill at Gulfstream yesterday. [Sun-Sentinal] Florida does not have workers compensation insurance for jockeys. Meanwhile, the Guild continues to ignore requests for an accounting of monies paid to them by the tracks. [Courier-Journal, Louisville]

- AND…

Bob Baffert's Roman Ruler was the hype horse until losing the Del Mar Futurity by a neck to Declan's Moon after a stretch duel. He finished fifth in the BC Juvenile as the favorite but afterward had surgery to remove an undescended testicle. Baffert has that testicle in a jar on his desk. "If he wins the Derby, I'm going to put it on eBay," he said
[also from the Courier-Journal]

I know a lot of people have always thought that Baffert has a lot of balls, but this is ridiculous!