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Friday, September 7, 2012
More Saratoga would be a good thing

By Bob Ehalt

Another sensational season at Saratoga has slipped away, becoming a part of racing lore, and there’s one particular question begging for an answer.

Could there be too much of a good thing?

With Governor Andrew Cuomo expected to submit his lineup card in the very near future and then send out his team to take over the New York Racing Association, Saratoga figures to be a key player in the mix.

While any conjecture about the future is merely a guessing game at this point in time, it seems likely that the bottom line will be the leadoff hitter for Team Cuomo. Given the governor’s numerous comments about NYRA’s finances, the state takeover is bound to center on red ink over black type.

And if the goal is to straighten out NYRA’s financial ledgers, then Saratoga will be featured somewhere in that game plan.

At Saratoga’s 144th meet, the final attendance and wagering figures reflect that the Spa’s charm is hardly growing old.

At Saratoga’s 144th meet, which ended on Labor Day, the final attendance and wagering figures reflect that the Spa’s charm is hardly growing old. The daily averages at the 40-day meet were up by 0.8 percent for attendance, 3 percent for on-track wagering and 9 percent for total wagering, which might sound modest -- until the actual numbers are plugged in. When you already have attendance and handle figures that are the envy of virtually every other track in the nation, even a small bump is a highly impressive accomplishment.

So what will Team Cuomo do with a track that attracts 22,526 fans a day and handles $14.7 million a day in wagers? They’ll no doubt try to maximize or enhance revenue from the Spa, which raises the inevitable question of whether the meet should be expanded.

The answer, at this point in time, would seem to be yes, and if that happens NYRA shouldn’t just tack on a couple of days to fill out a seven-week meet. With a casino booming at Aqueduct and reports of breakdowns and medication violations tarnishing the sport’s image, racing needs to present its best face for as long as possible.

So why not dispose with the pretense, make Saratoga the summer-long home of New York racing and conduct the meet from the Fourth of July through Labor Day?

There are logistical issues but if a longer Saratoga meet makes New York racing stronger and more viable then obstacles have to be remedied.

The truth of the matter is that horse racing has a bigger presence in New York City when it’s being conducted 150 miles upstate as opposed to Queens. There’s more coverage in newspapers and other forms of broadcast and online media. People talk about the sport more and wager more heavily on it, making it more relevant. As far as racetracks go, Saratoga is quite simply more of a household name than Aqueduct.

Starting on July 4 would tack on another 14 racing days to the meet and probably weaken the daily average figures. But the total figures and NYRA’s bottom line would skyrocket since attendance at Saratoga on a typical July afternoon is about four times larger than it is at Belmont Park.

If Saratoga’s figures were slipping then talk of extra days would be folly. But when it comes to Saratoga the general populations seems to have forgotten there’s a weak economy out there. The town’s hotels and restaurants are packed, generating the kind of revenue that comes in handy for them during lean days in the winter. Given how important the racetrack is to the local economy, it’s hard to imagine a business squawking over the extra days. Rents could be changed to cover all of July and August.

A Fourth of July starting date would also give NYRA a great opportunity to market the meet and promote its opening by having it contained within bookend holidays. A July 4 opening day is a snap for even a non-fan to remember as opposed to July 20 -- or is it the 21st?

It’s a radical change, but given all of NYRA’s ills, it’s worth pursuing. Horsemen and track workers may not like being away from home for two months, but it’s the fans that propel the sport and based on the huge turnouts at the Spa in recent years more dates will hardly be a turn-off. Is anyone actually going to say, “I’m not going to Saratoga this year because there are too many days?” It’s more likely fans from areas like New York City will make an extra trip or two upstate because of the extra dates.

A good thing? That’s definitely Saratoga and right now some more of it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world for NYRA.

Repole guarantees … defeat?

Victory came at a price for Long Island’s Mike Repole.

A few races after clinching a third-straight owner’s title at Saratoga, the Queens native seemed more relieved than happy about his rare achievement. Echoing comments he had made a few days earlier to the Daily Racing Form, Repole said there would not a be a fourth title in 2013.

More precisely, he guaranteed it.

Next year, I guarantee you someone else will win this meet and I will be the happiest guy in the world to shake his hand.

-- Owner Mike Repole

“There will not be an encore,” Repole said, using words that seemed lifted from Apollo Creed at the end of the original “Rocky.” “This feels great but I take it way too seriously. Next year, I guarantee you someone else will win this meet and I will be the happiest guy in the world to shake his hand.

“I will be happy winning five or six races next year.”

As much as Repole might be a huge Mets fan, his comments should probably be viewed in the same light as the Yankees operating within the confines of a budget.

It’s fine to say “no mas” in September of 2012, but when next August rolls around, don’t be surprised if Repole is once again in the hunt for a title. As much as he added some claiming stock to chase a hat trick in this year’s owner’s race, his stable is large enough that it might take a debacle along the lines of his 0-for-36 in 2009 to keep him out of the chase.

Repole won 13 races this year and unveiled some promising 2-year-olds like Micromanage, Overanalyze, Coconut Shrimp and Notacatbutallama under the care of Todd Pletcher, the meet’s leading trainer. Yet the stable’s unsung hero was Bruce Levine, who handles most of Repole’s claiming stock and accounted for five wins, which enabled Repole to beat out Michael Dubb by one victory, 13-12.

“The guy who deserves a shout-out is Bruce Levine,” Repole said. “You expect Todd to win all of those races for me. The guy who won the title for me, though, was Bruce. He’s so sharp and knows how to put a horse in the right spot. Those five wins made the difference.

“My only regret about it, though, is that I’m good friends with Mike Dubb and he’s so good for racing and he’s lost back-to-back years to me by one race. We’re both Long Island guys and I root for him when he’s not racing against me.”

Next year, if Repole sticks to his guarantee, he should have plenty of opportunity to do just that.