Although racing fans are counting down the hours until American Pharoah makes his bid for Triple Crown history in the Belmont Stakes, the race will be the centerpiece on a card that includes nine graded stakes, including six Grade 1s. The day is one of two large cards this meet, the other being July 4, which will feature a dozen graded stakes races highlighted by the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational and Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational.
The trend of grouping major graded stakes from several weekends into one or two big Saturdays is not just a New York thing. Keeneland moved the Blue Grass Stakes to its already-heavy opening weekend for this spring meet, and the track launched its Fall Stars weekend in 2013 to provide more opportunities for horses working toward a Breeders' Cup start.
Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing for NYRA, believes this pooling of stakes from one spot on the calendar to a few big days is a purely economic move—and one that's likely to be repeated across the country in the next few years of the sport.
“The problem for racetracks in today's world is this: you have very little marketing dollars,” he said. “There's just no marketing budget. So for anyone to think that we can market racing on a daily basis or even every weekend, nobody can do that. It just can't be done.”
In the case of New York racing, Panza believes the strategy is working out for everyone. NYRA charges eight or nine percent for its simulcast signal on big days, which is a bump from its regular fare, and the heightened exposure for races like the Met Mile also seems to bring an increase in wagering—Panza reported that Met Mile handle tripled after it was moved to the Belmont undercard last year, and the simulcast signal made 40 percent more, a win for the track and the horsemen.
That increased betting interest could be because (at least so far), big race days in New York have attracted fields that are larger and a bit stronger than on average weekend cards. The rescheduling of the Met Mile brought scrutiny from racing traditionalists, but Panza said its new place on the calendar is more convenient for a horse like Bayern, who is coming out of the Churchill Downs Stakes on the Derby undercard and likely wouldn't have run back 11 days earlier on Memorial Day weekend.
Some trainers appreciate the options a more spread-out schedule affords but are willing to roll with the punches.
“From a horseman's perspective, I think it's better if you spread them out a little bit,” said trainer Nick Zito, trainer of Belmont runner Frammento. “At the end of the day, if it's helping the game, nobody can say anything about that. The game's bigger than everybody, so hopefully it works.”
Zito mused that having a major horse race outside Belmont weekend might generate its own experience.
“Let me put it this way, it'd be nice to see Untapable run next week, but what're you going to do?” he said.
Others believe the concentration is actually more fan-centric.
“It does not change anything for me as a trainer,” said Christophe Clement, who saddles five on Saturday. “I think for fans or for some of my owners, it makes it more entertaining to come racing and see four, five, six big races as opposed to one or two. I think it's a good thing for the owners and fans, and that's why we're here, is the owners and fans.”
Love it or hate it, Panza said that the clustering of races makes good business sense–and that's important for a company that has operated in the red for years.
The Stars and Stripes Day was worth $18 million in handle during its debut last year, and Panza expects that the day will grow.
“You hope that as you grow the big days, that casual fan who only comes maybe two times a year, maybe comes two other times,” he said.
It's an approach that seems to have worked on major foreign race days like Melbourne Cup and Longchamp Day, and with a little cooperation, Panza believes it could help streamline the national stakes calendar, too. He is scheduled to meet with eight or nine racing secretaries from around the country on the day after Belmont and has high hopes of coordinating major race days and calendars.
“Anybody that thinks we can go back to the way it was? It doesn't work. It's dying, he said. “It's not going to lead us into the future. The easy thing for me here would be to make no changes. We're taking some risks, and it's fine. I think we're doing the right thing.”
But, Panza cautioned, to see the big days bring racing back to national prominence, we're going to have to be patient.
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