A new look to Memorial Day at NYRA

May, 27, 2014

The times have surely been a-changin' at the New York Racing Association, and it's not just the new 1:20 p.m. first-race post time.

There's been a winter filled with Monday racing -- a sight seen only at Saratoga in previous years -- and a weekly schedule that changed from month to month.

There's also been emphasis on creating showcase days with a bundle of stakes to capture the imagination -- and wagering dollars -- of patrons.

The biggest of them all will take place on June 7, which also happens to be Belmont Stakes Day. There will be 10 stakes on the 13-race card, which starts at 11:35 a.m. and will end around 8:15 p.m.

It's one of five major days that will serve as a NYRA stakes buffet, joining the July 5 card, with the new $1,250,000 Belmont Derby and the $1 million Belmont Oaks, the Aug. 2 Whitney Day card, the Aug. 23 Travers Day card and Super Saturday, featuring the Jockey Club Gold Cup, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 28.

The Belmont Day program, with California Chrome bidding to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, is, of course, the showstopper. It features $8 million in purse money, making it the second-richest day of racing in North America, trailing only Breeders' Cup Saturday.

Some of the must-see events on the card are the $1 million Ogden Phipps, $1 million Manhattan, $750,000 Acorn and the race that trails only the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes in value, the $1,250,000 Metropolitan Handicap.

As glittering an array of stakes as that might be, seeing the Met Mile in June could be a shock to some folks' systems. For decades, the Met Mile was the centerpiece of Belmont Park's Memorial Day card, which this year included a trio of stakes, the $300,000 Poker, the $200,000 Pennine Ridge and the $100,000 Jersey Girl.

Down the road, it will be interesting to see if everything balances out. Given the presence of California Chrome and a Triple Crown bid, the Belmont Stakes program figures to attract more than 100,000 people to the track, regardless of whether it has the Met Mile or a $25,000 starter allowance race in that spot on the card. At the opposite end of the spectrum, had California Chrome finished second in the Preakness, having the Met Mile on the card would have helped ease the sting of the inflated ticket prices for Belmont Stakes seats.

Meanwhile, will fans who came out to the track on Memorial Day take to the idea of three stakes to replace the one big famous one?

To put that in perspective, last year's Met Mile featured a superb duel between Sahara Sky and future Whitney winner Cross Traffic, and the 2012 edition saw Preakness winner Shackleford beat Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Caleb's Posse by a nose.

As for Monday's stakes, they were won by Red Velvet (Jersey Girl), Gala Award (Pennine Ridge) and Jack Milton (Poker) -- all three trained by Todd Pletcher, who used the three-bagger to surpass his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, on the all-time earnings list with $268,512,294.

We'll see if major stakes get attached to their names in the coming months or years. Yet for now, while Memorial Day was not the same at Belmont Park, the concept of bundling stakes certainly has great appeal in most instances. On Belmont Stakes Day, we'll see if 10 stakes, including the Met Mile, is overkill, but for now it has all the makings of an unforgettable day of racing -- whether or not the number of Triple Crown winners finally jumps to 12.

Belmont Stakes update

Speaking of California Chrome, assistant trainer Alan Sherman proclaimed "all systems go" after the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner galloped two miles at Belmont Park on Monday.

"The track was a little deeper today, but he got over it fine," Sherman said. "All systems go."

Candidates to oppose California Chrome in the mile-and-a-half "Test of the Champion" include Ride on Curlin, Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, Commissioner, Kid Cruz, Matuszak and Samraat. Pletcher added Matterhorn, a new purchase who was fourth in the Peter Pan, to that list on Monday.

Social Inclusion, who was third in the Preakness, and Candy Boy are also possibilities.

As for that June 7 card, the Ogden Phipps could be a gem, with Beholder, Princess of Sylmar and Close Hatches all being pointing to that race.

Close Hatches worked five furlongs in 1:00.12 for trainer Bill Mott in preparation for the showdown.

"I don't think the Ogden Phipps will be overlooked," Mott said. "I think there will be a lot of buzz around it. When you get a race that competitive -- all those fillies are very well known, they were finalists for an Eclipse award -- I think people care."

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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