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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Saratoga Opening Day Eve Notes and News

Martin Panza, NYRA's SR VP of Racing Operation, seems like quite the chatty guy.  I've seen him quoted in the press on a regular basis of late; talking about the success of the 5th of July card and his desire for more 'big days;' and discussing the racing at Saratoga, where they'll be less flat races (with the jumpers relegated to a pre-game show - or like a warm-up band - with an early post time) and an attempt to reduce the bottom-basement type races.  He sat for an extensive interview with Bob Ehalt which appears on, and entertained questions at the track on Wednesday along with CEO Chris Kay.

Panza has quickly taken charge, putting his stamp on the product - he tends to speak in the first person: "I'm" going to do this, "I" need to do that, "I" tinkered with the Whitney - and demonstrating a command of the off-track issues.  In the ESPN piece, he discusses the future of Aqueduct and Belmont, getting back in the Breeders' Cup mix (yeah, whatever), packaging stakes races for new TV sports networks, and trying to set up a Triple Turf Crown.  Or a Turf Triple Crown, I forget which.  There's also a long section about changing the Triple Crown format, which is a waste of space because nothing like that is happening anytime soon.  He's quickly fulfilled what he was hired to do - be the racing guy in an executive office increasingly filled with non-racing people, so that Kay can spout meaningless stuff like: “It is absolutely imperative we develop such a sustainable business plan because horse racing is so important to New York."  And to tell us how the new Director of Communications, John Durso Jr., is "like me, a fan of horse racing." Oh, man.

Having said that, I certainly don't agree with everything Panza is planning.  Despite the success of the Stars and Stripes program at Belmont, I'm not at all a believer that the occasional 'big days' with big-purse stakes races "hold the key to increasing racing's fan base," and believe that NYRA is missing the mark by not focusing on the vacant off-track betting market in NYC.  I don't see how increasing the purse of the Whitney will draw a single extra person to the track.  Fact is that every day at Saratoga has a big day feel, but it's because of the atmosphere and the (hopefully) big and competitive racing fields, whether they are stakes races or 20K claimers.  And I don't particularly agree that eliminating lower class races has anything to do with increasing the "quality" of racing; which to me is based purely on the bet-worthiness of races, no matter what kind of class the horses may or may not have.  But at least the man has a vision and a plan and is working aggressively to implement it. So we'll give him a chance and see what happens.

Regarding the Breeders' Cup, Panza is shooting to get back in the rotation late in the decade.  He excused them for ignoring New York, pointing out the instability at NYRA over the last few years. But the Breeders' Cup staged the event in Santa Anita one year even when the main track situation was in flux and one didn't even know what kind of dirt or plastic would be in place or when; and has continued to return there even though the dirt track that was eventually installed has been a freak show on the event days.  They can take the Breeders' Cup to Kentucky and run it in Mitch McConnell's backyard for all I care.  It's an insider event that has done absolutely nothing to further the game; in fact, it has turned what used to be the climactic fall racing season into a series of prep races.

No more inflated attendance figures on giveaway days as NYRA Chief Experience Office Lynn LaRocca announced the other day.  Excessive spinning will be limited to two extra vouchers at a time, in an attempt to prevent hoarding and to give more people a chance to get the items; and the extra vouchers sold will not count towards attendance.  So the phony crowd figures - to me one of the treasured traditions of Saratoga - will become a thing of the past.  (Maybe they can throw out the damn 18 17 minute bell as well [whatever, but I should know how many minutes by now, you'd think].)  That means that Durso and his communications department will be spending time issuing qualifiers as to why the attendance figures are down from last year; look for them to focus more on per-capita wagering than body counts.  It will be interesting to finally see how many people are really there on those days.

New TVs and picnic tables are promised for the backyard, though if it were up to me, I might have less TVs in order to force people to leave the backyard and actually go watch a horse race for a change!

In any event, and as opposed to many years in the past, the weather for opening weekend is supposed to be gorgeous.  Frankie Dettori is in town, the Toddster surely has a new wardrobe and his hair in place as he looks to dominate (again), and it looks like all systems are go!


Anonymous said...

This Nyra group seems to like to toot it's own horn a lot. I like that Panza's using the same exact formula he used for Hollywood Park, a track that is closed, and nobody is questioning it.

Figless said...

At least they are trying something different, instead of doing the same thing over and over again.....

Its going to be impossible to quantify the effect, if any, of the increased admission price, without counting the spinners. The spinning factor would have distorted any comparison regardless but now its really apples and oranges.

Figless said...

PS interested in seeing Belmont attendance as compared to last year, excluding Belmont day of course.

El Angelo said...

My guess is we should take a snapshot of the stakes schedule at Saratoga this year, because it's going to look a lot different next year. Panza has said he's going to look holistically at the stakes schedule and he's right to do so, because races like the Sword Dancer and Prioress are weird fits in their current situation.

Teresa said...

17 minutes. And keep your hands off that bell, dude.

Unknown said...

The new spinner rule is genius because as Figless notes, it makes year-to-year attendance comparisons meaningless, which means it will be tough to question the decision to raise admission prices

ljk said...

I'm with Teresa. Don't mess with the bell.

Plenty of new TVs but from what I can tell none visible from the middle of paddock railing. I've been to 75 racetracks and Saratoga is the only one where you can't see a tote board from the paddock railing.

Nick Kling said...

Be serious.

There are 4 giveaway Sunday's. Anyone who can't compare the attendance variation on the other 36 days with the same 36 days last year needs a new Abacus.

Any difference in real attendance on those 4 Sundays will be small. Handle figures those days will tell the tale. All this renders the hand-wringing about comparing figures "meaningless."

Anonymous said...


Just make sure you are honest and use the number of races run in 2013 vs 2014 as well when comparing those handle figures for the other 36 days.

Don't try anything disingenuous, now.

SaratogaSpa said...

Still waiting for the day we can actually hear Tom Durkin while actually at the races.

Why we can't figure out the acousticsin today's age is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know why there are about 60 empty stalls on the main track? Just curious

Figless said...

Nick that is a very fair point, back out Sunday and an apple to apples comparison can in fact be made.

Good, because as someone who believes the admission increase will not impact attendance I want to be able to argue my point.

Has anyone seen Belmont spring meet attendance figures?