SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- It is the best of times at the Spaaaaa.
Historic Saratoga Race Course, the nation's oldest, most celebrated and revered venue of thoroughbred competition will launch a 40-day meeting on Friday. (OK, everyone in the civilized world already knows this.) Purses will be astronomical, fueled by revenue from a three-level casino some 200 miles to the south, at Aqueduct, which since its opening late last year has exceeded expectations and -- despite the best efforts of a delusional government -- revived both racing and breeding businesses in the Empire State with a steady torrent of cash.
The results have not been subtle.
Average of total daily purses here will flirt with an unprecedented $1-million.
Because of the newly flush local racing economy, the New York Racing Association saw the annual pre-Saratoga wane in competition and field size, long typical of the period between early June and the move to the Spa, fail to materialize this year. Saratoga itself has, since mid-April, been abuzz with training activity, an inflow of horses that forced the early opening of the main facility as the population exceeded the capacity of the legendary Oklahoma training track. Average of total daily purses here will flirt with an unprecedented $1-million.
As always, Saratoga is an event unto itself, the lure that brings a surge of visitors to the track from all over the United States and nearby Canada. The town, a singular exception to the prevailing economic malaise in the East, is equidistant to three major population centers: New York City, Boston and Montreal. The track bustles with fans on a daily basis; its capacity and infrastructure put to the test on weekends, when the most prestigious races run during the summer season are scheduled and run in a festival atmosphere. Every important racing operation in the United States will be represented here this year. The jockey colony is the planet's strongest.
Racing as it was meant to be.
It is also the worst of times.
NYRA, rudderless and clueless since the dismissal of former president Charlie Hayward and legal counsel Patrick Keogh (some would say it was already rudderless and clueless) in the face of accounting irregularities revealed during the spring, awaits the stark reality of a state takeover and operates on fumes under the thumb of a cadre of racing-ignorant politicians, a development that will bring nothing positive to the industry in New York.
To wit: The state Racing and Wagering Board has gone to great lengths to establish the purity of its incompetence. The establishment of a detention barn for horses running in last month's Belmont Stakes is incontrovertible evidence. At least a few appointed members of the Franchise Oversight Board that monitors NYRA -- obviously challenged by simple arithmetic -- say the state should review whether racing has really benefited by boosting purses with money from the casino. As jaw-droppingly stupid as this sounds, it is also illustrative of a calculated, hostile political climate that pervades the racing industry in a state led by a governor, his political coffers engorged by contributions from commercial casino interests, who has adopted an agenda designed to repay such generous endowments. Andrew Cuomo, whose original view of gambling expansion in New York promoted full-scale casinos at the state's nine racetracks, now supports casino gambling anywhere there is a sufficiently large vacant lot and a developer with contributions to be considered. There are storm clouds on the horizon even in the face of unimagined prosperity in New York, where NYRA is wanting for professional leadership -- a chief executive officer with a understanding of the industry; an experienced chief operating officer who understands the complexity of a large enterprise on both sides of the white rails. Neither is in place, state officials now in charge have shown no initiative in filling these voids and those long familiar with politics in New York are predicting an eventual decapitation at the bloody hands of a government without conscious.
The prevailing political and economic weather notwithstanding, the season at Saratoga has always been bulletproof and, at least temporarily, may be nuke-proof. Now, it moves to a level beyond comprehension of both horsemen and bettors -- racing economics as it was meant to be. Enjoy.
The season at Saratoga has always been bulletproof and, at least temporarily, may be nuke-proof.
The largest purses ever will produce a level of competition and field size never before seen here or anywhere outside Asia. This will present a myriad of challenges to handicappers and bettors, produce betting totals that will be mind bending and, in turn, lead what is already the nation's most popular betting product, to levels never before seen in American racing.
Recent national figures suggest that racing, unlike the economy at large, is in a rebound. Year-to-date, wagering totals, long is decline, are up by 2.38 percent for 2012 and purses up by 8.3 percent. Saratoga, with purses up by more than 30 percent over those in 2011, can only stimulate this trend.
This, having already impacted the state's breeding industry in a positive way, will spill over to the sales ring, where the annual select yearling sale is always among the most popular of summer and financial considerations will make the horse bred in New York more valuable than at any point in history.
It's not your father's Saratoga anymore. This is no longer a one-horse town and the 24-day summer idyll buttressed by a handful of powerful Eastern racing stables is now a rather long meeting that is in the simulcasting era national in scope and influence. Some things -- shameless price gouging in particular -- endure, but this is now a season that is at the bottom line a measure of the American racing industry's economic health.
The barometer currently suggests that racing enjoys the nascent stage of a turnaround. By Labor Day, when the money is counted, the picture will be a sharper focus.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.