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Tuesday, August 6, 2013
Saturation at the Spa

By Paul Moran
Special to ESPN.com

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- There was a time when trainers and owners took a hard look at their animals before making the decision on whether or not the trip to Saratoga was prudent.

Promising 2-year-olds would not be left behind at Belmont Park or Aqueduct. Saratoga is the perfect showcase for fast youth. Stakes horses with summer objectives, those with available allowance conditions and those at the upper end of the claiming food chain would find opportunity at the Spa.

There is at times little discernible difference between some races that find a place on a Saratoga racing program and their counterparts at Finger Lakes, Monmouth, Delaware Park or Parx Racing.

But this was no place to bring horses running at the lowest claiming levels and certainly not maidens already being offered for sale in claiming races. There would be no opportunity. Saratoga was a boutique meeting, not a consignment shop.

Even as the meeting was expanded from 24 days to 30, 36 and, now 40 days, the quality of the product was closely guarded. This, however, is lost in 21st Century Saratoga. There is at times little discernible difference between some races that find a place on a Saratoga racing program and their counterparts at Finger Lakes, Monmouth, Delaware Park or Parx Racing. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a New York-based horse too cheap for Saratoga.

On Thursday, Aug. 1, an 11-race card that began with two steeplechases included two races for maiden claimers and four other claiming races. By the time horses left the paddock for the 10th, a $20,000 claimer and absolutely unessential, most of the crowd was gone. This was not an isolated incident. Too many cheap races do nothing to keep people from leaving. In fact, it often hastens their departure.

There is simply too much product at Saratoga and much of it does not measure up. Saratoga is ideally an enclave for the equine elite, not a fortress of low-grade pari-mutuel fodder.

The sheer length of the racing day -- 10 or more on most weekdays, as many as 12 on weekends, six days a week -- is debilitating to all involved and the races being used to senselessly bloat these programs do not belong here. This is about special horses and those with the potential to become special. Yet, established mediocrity is not seen by the New York Racing Association as a negative. Now, if a horse can walk to the paddock, there will be opportunity to run at Saratoga.

Not that long ago, there were no maiden claiming races carded here. They are now plentiful and do nothing to enhance the Saratoga experience. There is more than ample opportunity to run these bottom-level horses at Aqueduct and Belmont. For six weeks, this should be a class act, top to bottom. While the biggest names in racing are present and accounted for, too many cheap horses are permitted to run here in the misguided interest of elongating the daily product until the last 10-cent superfecta wager is placed.

This is entirely counterproductive. The belief that more races regardless of quality results in greater betting handle is fallacious. It has long been established that bettors risk more on high-quality races than on those run for lower-level animals. According to Equibase, U.S. betting handle in July was essentially flat year over year despite a 2.87 percent decline in racing days. This trend has been well established in recent years. Money available to be bet remains constant regardless of the number of opportunities offered and an unwelcomed test of endurance does nothing to hold a crowd.

Complaints during and after the 2012 meeting about the length and suffering overall quality of a day at the races here brought some hope of a more reasonable approach but have apparently fallen upon deaf ears. More than 60 races a week exceed, by far, demand for the product, the public attention span and the limits of staff and employees. By the end of this meeting on Labor Day, NYRA will have run more races in 40 days than should be run in 50.

Altering the racing program would take little creativity. Simply eliminate maiden claiming races.

In the main, the racing here has been contentious and entertaining for all the reasons expected at a Saratoga meeting. But neither of those qualities is dependent upon overly long programs and a six-day racing week. Too much of anything becomes tiresome and there is far too much racing here.

Altering the racing program would take little creativity. Simply eliminate maiden claiming races. That would trim much of the excess. Elevate that bottom claiming level to $35,000. Nine races on a weekday are more than sufficient. Another race or two on weekends is acceptable. But much of what NYRA is now offering the bettors and more casual fans at Saratoga is not only below expectations but insulting. It is certainly not creating an improved entertainment experience at the Spa.

Saratoga is about high-class racing supporting top-class racing. It is not about maiden claimers. That's why there are tracks in Canandaigua, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. These would be happy to accommodate horses not up to Saratoga snuff. Sadly, there is no longer such a thing as Saratoga snuff.