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Monday, June 16, 2014
NYRA should leave the Belmont alone

One of the main themes in Chris Kay's regime as the president and CEO of the New York Racing Association has involved a willingness to embrace change.

In the last six months, Kay and top NYRA officials have redesigned the circuit's stakes schedule and created blockbuster days, like the $8 million in purses on Belmont Stakes Day that generated a record-breaking $150 million handle and turned out to be a stroke of genius.

During the winter they also experimented with Monday racing.

Yet if there's one part of New York racing in which Kay should resist the urge to tinker, it's moving the Belmont Stakes.

In the aftermath of a 36th straight year without a Triple Crown sweep, there's been an outcry that the Triple Crown should abandon its five-week format and become a once a month show in May, June and July. No less of a key player in the series than Pimlico president and COO Tom Chuckas called for such a revamped format a few days after the Preakness.

And, at a quick glance, there's some sense to it. In an era in which two or three weeks of rest between races is the exception rather than the rule, the Triple Crown grind is tougher on a horses than it was in the 1970's when Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) became the last three Triple Crown winners.

The logic voiced by those seeking change is that more spacing between the races will lead to more Triple Crown winners, and who doesn't want to see that?

The answer is not as obvious as some might think.

Rather than look at the glass as half-empty with the absence of a Triple Crown winner since 1978, racing should take the half-full approach and realize that there's nothing wrong with owning one of the toughest accomplishments in sports -- which is also enjoying unprecedented popularity.

Judging by the response to this year's quest, it's quite clear that a drought has not turned off fans. In fact, it brought them to Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park in numbers that were amazing and produced near-record television ratings for the Belmont Stakes.

Churchill Downs had a crowd of 164,906 for the Kentucky Derby, the second-highest figure in the race's 140-year history and trailing only the 2012 edition. Total wagering on the card of $186.6 million matched a record.

Pimlico set a record with attendance of 123,469 and saw total wagering rise by slightly more than two percent to $83.7 million.

Belmont Park drew a crowd of 102,199, the third-highest figure in track history, and the last five Triple Crown bids have now brought an average of 104,380 to Belmont Park. An astronomical total of $150,249,399 was wagered this year, shattering the track's previous mark of $124 million for the 2005 Breeders' Cup.

Television ratings for the Belmont were also through the roof. NBC had a viewership of 20.6 million for its final hour of coverage. Only the 21.9 million who watched Smarty Jones' Belmont in 2004 eclipsed that figure and it was 57 percent higher than when ABC broadcast the last Triple Crown bid (Big Brown in 2008).

The desire to change the structure would be understandable if attendance, wagering and television ratings were in a tailspin. Yet to do it when the series is enjoying such a high level of popularity, why play games with the golden goose?

Each year, fans get a chance to express their feelings on the Triple Crown by following it or ignoring it, and this year their approval could be heard loud and clear in the business numbers from the three legs of the series.

Meanwhile, how they might respond to let's say three Triple Crown winners in four years and a Belmont Stakes on July 4th weekend is debatable. The magic and sense of anticipation and excitement that comes from achieving something so rare would be gone.

The Triple Crown could become passť. Just ask someone who can remember the 1979 Triple Crown, which seemed certain to produced a third straight sweep thanks to Spectacular Bid. Interest in that chase was muted compared to the sweeps in 1973, 1977 and 1978. What seemed so special when Secretariat ended a 25-year drought was becoming routine.

Now we know that the Triple Crown is indeed as difficult of a challenge as it was in the pre-Secretariat days, and what's so wrong with that?

Right now, a drought that will stretch into a 37th year in 2015 is indeed what separates the Triple Crown from other major sporting events. People flock to it because they believe THIS will finally be the year someone does it, and they want to be at the track for it. Why give people cause to believe they can miss this year's sweep and wait another two or three years to see the next one -- especially when business is booming.

Moving the Belmont Stakes to July will not help NYRA. If anything it will turn June into a dead spot on the NYRA calendar and force it to conduct its biggest race of the year during a period of time most people in the New York-area associate with beaches and vacations.

It might help Pimlico, but at what cost for NYRA and the sport in general?

And what will the Baltimore track truly gain? Would the presence of Commanding Curve in the starting gate for the Preakness have brought out an extra 5,000 fans?

The Preakness undercard is hardly a robust wagering program but what should be expected from a day with $2,850,000 in purses when NYRA is offering $8 million?

Rather than destroy the tradition of the Triple Crown and create a lesser brand of immortals, Pimlico would be wise to pour more money into undercard stakes and get more creative in its slotting of races. Perhaps it's time to give up the ghost with the Black-Eyed Susan, a $500,000 race on the day before the Preakness that attracts the B players, and turns it into a rich turf stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Why not add a similar race for 3-year-olds colt on Saturday and create a bonus system for both tied to some preps at Gulfstream Park and the subsequent Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks on July 4th weekend in New York?

Ideas like that can help Pimlico increase wagering and are preferable to the easy way out of changing the Triple Crown.

It's fair to say racing has more than its fair share of problems, and with so many other things to fix why is anyone in a position of power in the sport even contemplating toying with its most popular and thriving asset?

Hopefully Chris Kay will realize that and leave well enough alone.