Tuesday, September 10, 2013
A lack of headlines
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
The New York Racing Association got beat up far and wide after the final attendance and handle numbers came in from Saratoga and they weren't good. Despite almost perfect weather until the final weekend, total handle was off 0.3 percent, on-track handle was down 2.1 percent, and, most alarmingly, attendance fell by 3.9 percent. Most pundits have aimed their blame at NYRA for insisting on too many racing dates and too many races per day and watering down the product.
It's true that racing at Saratoga isn't what it once used to be, when 24 days of racing and nine races per day were standard and NYRA didn't dare card races for the flotsam and jetsam of the backstretch. In racing, more is always less when it comes to quality and a poor racing product has to be taken into account whenever examining why NYRA's numbers have fallen.
But the racing wasn't any better or worse than it was in 2012, when attendance actually increased slightly over the prior meet. Then what changed at Saratoga in 2013? The answer is that the two New York tabloids drastically scaled back on their horse racing coverage.
In New York horse racing the papers that always mattered were not the high-brow New York Times, but the New York Post and Daily News. That's what racing fans read, and they got what they were looking for. Both gave extensive space to the sport, with charts, entries, race coverage and handicapping analysis. I have worked for both papers and was one of a team of people assigned to the sport. The New York Post's coverage of racing in the late seventies and eighties was arguably the finest racing coverage ever by a mainstream newspaper.
But as racing's popularity declined and newspapers started hanging on for dear life in face of digital competition, racing was an easy target for cutbacks. The News and Post both hung in there pretty well, but the inevitable happened this year. Prior to this year's Belmont Stakes, the Post laid off all its key racing writers and handicappers and, around the same time, the News cut back on its coverage. Much of that paper's racing coverage can now be found on the Internet only. When I worked for the Daily News there were three full-time people assigned to horse racing. Now, there's one -- Jerry Bossert.
The subjects of the News and Post came up at a NYRA Board of Directors meeting in the late spring, but the problem was dismissed in the time it would take for one Board member to say "It's no big deal. No one reads newspapers anymore."
OK, so newspapers aren't what they once were. But the combined circulation of those two papers is still at 1.5 million. That's 1.5 million people who no longer read about horse racing, no longer are reminded every day that Saratoga is going on and that it is special. In New York, when it comes to sports, the News and Post are still very influential. Their abandoning racing is a signal to everyone else in the media that the sport isn't relevant. No sport can disappear from these pages and not pay dearly.
While NYRA had no control over the moves made by the Post and News, its leaders didn't help the situation when they decided that newspaper coverage wasn't important. It's probably too late, but NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay ought to at least reach out to top executives at both papers and see if maybe he can't change their minds. The Post and, to a lesser extent, the Daily News decided they didn't need NYRA. But NYRA needs them.
Ex-Jockey: Saez is Innocent -- Eddie Donnally, a former jockey who turned his life around after a serious battle with drugs and alcohol and is now an ordained minister, has no secrets when it comes to his riding career. He admits that he carried a battery when riding, estimating that he did so at least 50 times.
So Donnally's opinion is a valuable one when it comes to the accusations that Luis Saez carried a battery when riding Will Take Charge to victory in the Travers. Donnally is certain that Saez did not carry what they call a machine.
But the racing wasn't any better or worse than it was in 2012, when attendance actually increased slightly over the prior meet.
"I have never seen or never heard of a rider switching sticks [changing the whip from one hand to the other] with a machine in his hand," he said. "And Saez switched sticks at the top of the stretch. You have to start out with a machine in one hand and keep it in that hand, whichever hand it is in."
Donnally went on to explain that it is impossible for a jockey to hold a battery, the reins and a whip and be able to juggle them back and forth from one hand to the other.
"You have to have the battery in your hand and turned down because the prods are at the bottom," he said. "If you were to switch sticks, there's two ways of doing so, you can either pull it straight out or bend it over and take it over with the other hand. To do that with a machine in your hand is just not possible. You cannot hold the rein, a machine and a stick in the same hand. The hand just isn't big enough. A jockey just cannot switch sticks with a machine in their hand.
"I can say with a high degree of certainty that he did not use a machine."
A jockey just cannot switch sticks with a machine in their hand.
-- Former jockey Eddie Donnally