The Big A – Winter Racing on Ice

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It remains pretty cold here in New York. Lousy weather for racing. Wonderful weather for staying inside and surfing the web, looking into decorative options for the Around2Turns clubhouse. This beauty clearly dates from the mid-to-late 1960s, as the Op Art style (makes it look as if those horses are about to run right over you) was quite fashionable at the time. Also, those dates are a perfect match for the Aqueduct fall season of 1968.

Imagine that. The thoroughbred season in New York not only ended in 1968 – versus today’s endless loop of racing – but it was legally bound to stay on ice until March 10 of 1969. Three whole months with no thoroughbred racing in New York! [Here is probably a good place to point out to our younger reader that as recently as the 1960s, New York’s state government actually strove to discourage its citizens from making too many lousy bets, versus today’s emphasis on making them plentiful and altogether convenient for the citizen sapsucker.]

So when the 1969 racing season finally opened, 40,145 grateful punters descended on Aqueduct to see what could be made of nine races with win-place-show betting and one daily double. But times were changing. It was the year of the moon landing, Woodstock, and the Miracle Mets. In the March 11, 1969 sports pages of the New York Times, the headline read “Girl Jockeys invade the Big A”. Three days later, Barbara Jo Rubin became the first girl jockey (she was only 19) to win a race on a NYRA racetrack, guiding home a 2-year-old filly trained by noted feminist Howard “Buddy” Jacobson.

Aqueduct opened again on March 10 in 1970, but in subsequent years the legal opening date of the racing season kept getting nudged up in the calendar, while the mandated closing date was similarly bumped in the opposite direction. This allowed for an increase in racing dates; a roughly proportional increase in handle; and, not coincidently, a roughly proportional increase in the millions that would go as tribute to Caesar (or, as we knew him, Governor Rockefeller). The 1975 season started on February 24th; a mere seven weeks after the “1974” season had ended on January 4th. In only six years a full six weeks had been converted from dark days to racing days. Hail, Caesar!

It is also fair to note that 1975 was a time of great economic struggle in New York City and beyond. Mayor Abraham Beame flirted with municipal bankruptcy while angling for a federal bailout that never arrived, prompting the famous Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”. In his February 24, 1975 story about the earliest opening day in Aqueduct’s history, the Times’s Joe Nichols wrote that “the early openings seem a sign that year-round racing here is on the way”.

Nichols was correct. The deal was done in a matter of months. The substantial cost for winterizing the Big A would be paid by the state, which would forego half of its share of the take for January and February racing over a ten-year period. In other words, the New York State government – calculating correctly that 5% of something was more than 10% of nothing – agreed to let horseplayers pay for the pleasure of having year-round racing. It was a tax grab pure and simple, and horseplayers have been paying ever since, in more ways than one.

Steve Cady wrote a remarkably prescient column in the Times that September titled “Improvement of the Greed”, which suggested that perhaps the name for the new (inner) track should be “Break-a-Leg Downs”, and asserted that the state was magnanimously providing a service that no one outside of certain back rooms in Albany had ever requested or even knew they wanted.

– The new one-mile course of sand, clay and salt will enable Aqueduct to do what bush-league tracks in the Northeast have been doing for some time: run right through the winter, or at least on days when blizzards or freezes or thaws don’t force shutdowns.

– Extra dates are “requested” by the tracks, and “granted” by politically appointed state racing commissions. What really happens is that the legislators, often with the support of spineless track operators, order more and more racing.

Here’s what the head of the precursor to today’s New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association had to say.

“I wish they hadn’t done it,” says Eugene Jacobs, president of the New York Division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “Why should horses be asked to run at top speed in 15-degree weather?”

At least some things are eternal. Here’s a word from a NYRA spokesman, along with Cady’s spot-on coda.

“Most of the horses stabled here now will stay right through the winter,” an NYRA spokesman said. “The racing will be top quality.”

Don’t believe it for a minute.

This is what has brought us to today’s bitter cold reality. Predictably, NYRA cancelled racing again today, citing the “abundance of caution” that has become their mantra. Just as predictably, NYRA’s “A of C” was mocked on Twitter by one of the few remaining winter racing dead-enders (reportedly in the last throes of their insurgency). But based on NYRA’s record since Miss Macarena became the 14th fatality of the winter meet on January 22nd (by my count, 10 of the last 20 cards have been cancelled), I’d say that their being currently in possession of an abundance of caution is perhaps one of the most truthful things ever said in the entire recorded history of press releases.

As the saying goes, it would be a shame to let such a good crisis go to waste. Bill Finley wrote a great column today, calling for the end of winter racing in New York. The editorial board of the Times has already provided their political cover on the issue. If ever there was a chance to get out from under the ill-advised, tax-starved decisions from forty years ago that brought us this bush-league racing product in the first place, this is it.

Here’s how it could go down. You can’t expect Christopher Kay to play a leading public role, as he’s a businessman with a politician who just got re-elected to another 4-year term for a boss. What he needs to do is drop the “enhanced guest experience” crap for a minute and whisper into the appropriate ear that what NYRA has is a “branding problem” (I hate this business-speak, but, when in Rome). Winter racing, and all the calamities that come with it, are dragging down the NYRA brand. Eliminate state-mandated winter racing dates and ordinary levels of caution will soon become sufficient, leaving NYRA to lavish its abundances upon their guests, with goodness and tribute destined to ensue, just as sure as Groucho follows Zeppo.

And if the whisper in the ear doesn’t work, then the proverbial knock upside the head may be in order. Someone should make it plain to the governor that the New York Racing Association did not gallop up to this latest precipice all by themselves. Someone with an abundance of integrity and authority who will say something like this:

“When hunger for revenue distorts the character of racing, your role as defender of traditional values becomes increasingly compelling. You stand as a bastion against those ominous and omnipresent forces that would demean the sport.” Someone who would warn against “over saturation” and other excesses that could lead to “public revulsion” and imperil racing “as it has so often in the past whenever integrity and moderation yielded to greed.”

Granted, those words didn’t work last time, even though the speaker had plenty of authority and oodles of integrity. That was nearly forty years ago, when the estimable, six-term New York State Controller Arthur Levitt gave an address at the Museum of Racing on Union Avenue. The message is still golden. It’s the messenger that’s gone missing.

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