I hope Martin Panza is not feeling down about the underwhelming crowd of about eleven thousand who showed up at last Saturday’s inaugural Stars and Stripes Day at Belmont Park. Sure, it was a picture perfect day for early summer racing, but as Yogi Berra actually said one time (speaking about a ballpark) “If the people don’t want to come … how are you going to stop them?”
As Senior Vice-President of Racing Operations at NYRA, Panza seemed to do everything in his power to put on a great day of racing, and succeeded on almost every count. So what if there was hardly anyone there to see it? As I watched the races in high-definition on my iPad while sitting on my back porch here in the Hudson Valley, cosseted by gentle breezes, my dogs at my feet and an assortment of beverages and snacks mere steps away, I asked myself, “why am I blowing off perhaps the greatest July Belmont race card in my twenty-five years of playing the horses?” I mulled that one over for a second or two before answering, “Oh, that’s right. I’m spoiled rotten.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single horseplayer in possession of a decent bankroll must be in want of an iPad and a solid WiFi connection. For today’s American horseplayer, these two rather low hurdles are cleared more easily than a World Cup soccer player falls down. This is especially true here in New York, where a NYRA advance deposit wagering account is free, and lets you bet Royal Ascot while in your pajamas; the feature at Del Mar from a cocktail bar; and Stars and Stripes Day from your back porch. Which is why all of Panza’s efforts should be graded only on total handle (just under $19 million on Saturday), not on attendance, and why he gets an “A” from this corner.
I hope Stars and Stripes Day continues to be an Independence Day fixture on the Belmont scene. Hell, I may even go next year. [With the holiday falling on a Friday this year, attending the inaugural S&S Day would have kept me in the city for two days of a three-day weekend: a non-starter for this working stiff with a house in the country.] While this new marquee day does a nice job of bridging the gap between the Triple Crown and the Saratoga season, anyone expecting very big crowds for what was obviously a manufactured event was courting disappointment. But if Panza can eventually manufacture a NYRA “turf triple crown” around his new Independence Day card, who’s to say that this invented event won’t go on to become part of a new tradition?
Although it seems almost too obvious to say it, the acid test in Panza’s first year as NYRA’s racing director will take place over the 40 days of the Saratoga meeting. Early signs indicate that Panza would prefer a racetrack biased more towards quality than quantity (via scheduling slightly fewer races by way of modestly shorter race cards). This should be welcome news to those among us who have bitched about the recent abundance of Saratoga races for New York-bred maiden claimers with speech impediments going five furlongs on the turf. If Panza can actually pull off the “quality for quantity” swap, I would hope that horseplayers would reward this pending minor miracle with a nice bump in handle, if not in attendance.
And speaking of attendance, it will not be surprising to see lower turnstile counts at the old spa this year, thanks to the jacked-up entrance fees that NYRA instituted earlier this year in a budget-balancing gambit. To this tourist, slightly fewer people at Saratoga seems like a great idea. To paraphrase Yogi, you wouldn’t want people to stop going to the place because it got too crowded. Five bucks does not seem like too much, when to find even vaguely comparable summer racing you would need to cross either a continent or an ocean.
All the hullabaloo about NYRA’s pricing schemes from earlier this year seemed, to me anyway, largely devoid of context. Critics suggested that struggling industries should not be raising rates, but have you checked the price of your newspaper lately? France is a bastion of egalitarianism when it comes to horse racing, but last month I paid five Euro (about $7) for general admission to an ordinary Saturday at Longchamp. Going to the races in Ireland and England practically requires financing. Fancy the summer festival at Galway? Gate prices range from 20 to 30 Euro ($28 to $42, seats are extra). Or how about “Glorious Goodwood”? A mere 40 Pounds (pushing $70!) gets you through the gate. Crikey!
Looking up these admission rates reminded me of a visit to Cheltenham with my wife about twenty years ago. This was one of their April fixtures, not the pricy festival in March. We went down to the last fence to watch the horses up close and happened to meet a posh twosome who seemed eager to chat up two youngish New Yorkers. When asked what I thought about going to the races in Britain, I confessed that I was surprised with how much it cost to get in, especially compared to what I paid back home. The posh lady gave me my first official tut-tutting, and said, “Oh, dear! How do you keep out the riffraff?”
At the time I didn’t think she was talking about me, but these days I’m not so sure.
So as we exit the Independence Day weekend and set our sights on Saratoga, let’s not quibble about a few more dollars. Instead, let us celebrate once again that Burgoyne took one on the kisser back in the fall of 1777, and that we also won the war. If not, today we’d be sticking a lot of extra u’s where they don’t belong, and lord knows how much we’d be paying to pass through the Saratoga turnstiles.