Saturday, October 8, 2011

Not Ready for Prime Time?

The powers that be at the New York Racing Association, not to mention nouveau uber-owner Mike Repole, have risen up to protest the Breeders Cup's decision to hold its 2012 edition at Santa Anita. Last Saturday, NYRA returned to the glory days of old with a "Super Saturday" card that included six graded stakes, five of them Grade 1s and the 6th, the Grade 2 Kelso, featuring Repole's local hero, Uncle Mo. Repole, who also had Stay Thirsty running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, celebrated in the Belmont Room with 50 or 60 of his closest friends.

Compared to the average Saturday at Belmont, the results were more than satisfactory. Attendance, on a day when rain threatened all afternoon and finally arrived late in the day, was a solid, if not overwhelming, 10,481. And all-sources handle was a very healthy $16.7 million.

On the same day, Santa Anita, running its own Breeders Cup preview card, had four Grade 1 stakes in an 11-race card, featuring Bob Baffert's Game On Dude and the filly Blind Luck. On a sunny day in Southern California, Attendance was 16,013, and total handle was $11.7 million.

Santa Anita also bested the Belmont numbers in field size. On the East Coast, only 80 horses ran in the 11 races, an average field of 7.3; for the six graded stakes, the field size was a puny 5.8. On the West Coast, Santa Anita averaged 9.4 horses per race, even with an average of only 7.5 starters in the four stakes races.

A closer look at the figures for handle suggests that the "talent-centric" focus of NYRA -- attract the best horses and they will come, might have trumped the "track-centric" approach of Santa Anita. The latter is surely a more pleasant place to watch the races; even on a sunny day, Belmont is a too-big, rambling plant, with a track that's so big it's hard to see the runners on the backstretch, even with binoculars. And, because Belmont's main track is a mile and a half, hardly any races start in front of the grandstand. Everything up to a mile and an eighth on the main track starts on the backstretch.

But the money certainly flowed for the big races. Each of the five Grade 1 stakes at Belmont took in at least $1.6 million in handle on the various bets keyed to that race. And the Jockey Club Gold Cup drew $2.6 million, including $670,000 for the all-stakes Pick 4. In Santa Anita, in contrast, the per-race handle on the four Grade 1 stakes ranged from $1.1 million to $1.3 million.

But Super Saturday also showed why Belmont may not quite be in shape to deserve the Breeders Cup. As on many big days, the weather was atrocious. Not as bad, perhaps, as the rain-drenched Breeders Cup at Monmouth in 2007, but certainly not a fun day to be out in the fresh air. Field size was reduced by a number of scratches due to weather and track conditions, especially in the stakes races. Belmont, where the grandstand faces north, into the winter wind, has neither heating nor air conditioning. Back in a different era, plans were made to make at least some of the grandstand more weather-friendly, but those plans fell victim to NYRA's then-impending bankruptcy and to reported cronyism or worse in the awarding of contracts. As a result, Belmont is far less fan-friendly than Santa Anita, where one can usually count on the weather to be good, or even Churchill, whose mammoth plant has lots of room inside if the weather turns chilly or wet.

And, despite a relatively recent makeover that walled off the furthest reaches of the grandstand side and slapped some fresh paint around, much of Belmont still reminds one of a bus station in a Rust Belt city. NYRA has done what it could with the money it has, replacing outmoded television screens with up-to-date flat screens, and installing an absolutely terrific infield tote board cum video display. But that's just not enough.

What does Belmont need to qualify as a deserving host for future Breeders Cups? Not much. Start by tearing up the track and replacing it with a mile-and-an-eighth oval, like Churchill and Aqueduct, so more races will start and finish in front of the grandstand. Then tear down the existing grandstand and replace it with something that works for "crowds" of 10,000 in spring and fall but that's expandable for the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders Cup -- and make sure the new plant is weatherized. Oh, and add lights, as Churchill has done, so that, eventually, racing can join the rest of professional sports and stage its championships in the evening, when they might draw a decent television audience.

So, Mike Repole, if you want to see the Cup back at Belmont, all it would take is a few hundred million, give or take a few hundred million. Otherwise, NYRA's pitch for future BCs is reduced to "it's our turn."

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