It has been quite a year for horse racing.
It began with equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park. At present, there have been 29. [As June 23, 2019 – 30 fatalities]
In May and June, we witnessed what can be surmised as an interesting Triple Crown season. We saw Maximum Security “win” the Kentucky Derby, only to get disqualified; we saw the jockeyless Bodexpress run wildly at the Preakness and then we saw the unheralded horse with the cool name, Sir Winston, win the Belmont at 10-1 odds.
We will head to summer with everything in the air.
For Santa Anita, their winter-spring meet can’t end soon enough. Every time there’s a death, there are calls to halt the meet; to put a stop to the proverbial bleeding. The meet will end soon, but there is another problem brewing for the beleaguered track. In November, the Breeders’ Cup returns and with that, will no doubt be a throng of press wanting to get in their expose of the sport.
There is some serious behind the scenes talk of what to do with this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Some think it should be moved and many think Churchill Downs, which always seems willing should get it. But, it’s not that easy. People have booked their flights, their hotels, their restaurant reservations, and their sightseeing expeditions. Those who say, “just move it,” don’t always understand the logistics involved.
The conventional wisdom is simple. Get the Santa Anita meet over with, let things die down and settle and then come back in November. That’s naïve of course; the media will use the summer to rest up and prepare for full-scale coverage the week of the Breeders’ Cup.
I’d be shocked if the Breeders’ Cup is moved, but what about future Breeders’ Cups? Since 2008, Santa Anita Park has hosted the Cup six times with number seven scheduled for this fall. In addition, Del Mar hosted in 2017, so to say there is West Coast bias with this event would be an accurate. After that, Kentucky is the only other state that has gotten in on Breeders’ Cup action; Churchill Downs has hosted three times (2010-2011, 2018) and Keeneland in 2015.
The Cup is set through 2021. Next year, the event goes back to Keeneland and in 2021, back to Del Mar. Where are the East Coast tracks? The last time the Cup was held in the east was 2007 at Monmouth Park. Belmont Park hasn’t hosted since 2005 and Gulfstream, 1999. Laurel would like to host in 2022, but until they figure out what to do with Pimlico and the Preakness, that might be wishful thinking on the part of the Stronach Group.
I do have a suggestion for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup—–Saratoga. Why hasn’t the oldest racecourse in the United States hosted this extravaganza? The charm, the beauty and the atmosphere at The Spa is legendary is second-to-none, yet there has never been a movement to bring the Cup there.
There are the obvious reasons.
First is the weather. It’s Upstate New York in November. But, it’s early November. In October, the average high in Saratoga is 61 degrees; the average low, 39, so there is a chance of cool weather. That said the chances are good that you’ll see 45 to 55-degree weather for the two days of racing.
The second reason would be that the track is closed but that’s not entirely accurate. The Saratoga season runs for 40 days from mid-July through Labor Day but the track is open for training from late March to November, which means it is staffed.
There is no place like Saratoga. In those 40 days of racing, over 900,000 fans attend. On weekends, attendance is closer to 40,000 than 30,000, so why wouldn’t these fans come out for the Breeders’ Cup? Saratoga might not be the best venue to watch horse racing, but no venue is supported like Spa.
Saratoga and NYRA (the track’s owners) would have to get creative, but this is where I’d come in. After Labor Day, the New York horses head back to Belmont for its Fall Championship Meet. It would be tough to run at Belmont and at Saratoga, so this is where the Fall Frenzy Meet at The Spa would come into play and here’s how it would work. We’ll use the 2019 calendar for planning purposes.
The Fall Frenzy would be an eight day meet that would culminate with the two-day Breeders’ Cup. The Frenzy would begin on Friday, October 18 with a 9-race card and a 12:15 pm post. The track would run Friday through Sunday with each race running for at least $100,000. On Saturday, a minimum $500,000 stakes race would be contested.
This would happen the next week as well. Racing would resume Friday, October 25 and run through Sunday. It’s six days and it’s targeted. The big-time trainers of the horse racing world could bring their second tier stars and would be in Saratoga for the Breeders’ Cup. After the second Sunday of the six day Fall Frenzy, Breeders’ Cup week would begin in earnest.
The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce just fell in love with me. Think about the action? Local hotels could put together Thursday-Sunday packages. It’s a four-day minimum, minutes away from the Adirondacks if you choose to skip the Friday or the Sunday. Restaurants would be happy and Siro’s, which is only open during track season, could re-open for 10 more days. The only question concerns local interest. In the summer, Saratoga is a great place to be. It’s warm, sunny and everybody there is in a good mood. In summer, people take more vacation time; they are more apt to take a Friday or Monday off to go to the track in summertime. I can’t give you an accurate number, but my guess is that 75 percent of the people that hit Saratoga in the summer don’t really care about horse racing. They’re there to drink, eat, dress up and people watch. Those that do bet, are betting jockeys, trainers and most likely picking on the basis of color and name. Would those same people come out to Saratoga when it’s 47 degrees?
It has to be tried. It’s only eight days with the Fall Frenzy being six of those eight. It may work fabulously, or it may bomb, but we’ll never know unless it is attempted. Horse racing is in a bit of a crossroads and when any business is, they need to be proactive not reactive. Now is the time to get creative and innovative. Sports betting is coming to a state near you which means horse racing has to do more to market themselves.
Since 2008, when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup, the sport has, in many ways, taken the easy way out. Santa Anita is an easy pick—California, breathtaking with usually perfect weather. Ditto for Del Mar. It’s also easy to sell Churchill Downs. It has the Twin Spires and because of the Kentucky Derby, most Americans know the venue.
It’s important to get other locations involved. The Super Bowl rotates each year, so too, does the NCAA Men’s Final Four. Shouldn’t the Breeders’ Cup do the same? The NFL would much rather go to New Orleans than Minneapolis, but they know they have to spread things around.
Saratoga may not want the Breeders’ Cup, but that shouldn’t matter. They should be approached and they should make it happen for 2022. The Fall Frenzy wouldn’t be every year, just in 2022 and in any future Breeders’ Cup years that they host.
Horse racing is under extreme pressure right now. There will be a state legislator that will eventually introduce a bill to end the sport. It likely won’t go anywhere because there is too much money involved, but some politician will sponsor the bill to advance his or her’s agenda and career.
Those that run the sport in each state need to get out in front of this and one way to do this is through marketing. You market the people who work in the sport, who love the sport and most importantly, who care and care deeply about the sport. After that message sinks in, you market the actual racing aspect, and one of the best things the sport offers is Saratoga Race Course, a venue that has been around since 1864, the year before the Civil War ended.
That track has seen a lot; it needs to see a Breeders’ Cup.
As a kid growing up in the Buffalo suburbs in the 1970s and 80s, the radio was one of John Furgele’s best friends. In the evenings, he used to listen to a show on WBEN radio called “Free Form Sports,” hosted by Buffalo broadcast legend Stan Barron. The show ran weeknights from 6 to 11 pm and featured every kind of sport you could imagine. One minute, Mr. Barron was interviewing a Buffalo Sabres player; the next, he was giving high school field hockey scores.
But there was always one thing that caught John’s ear. During those five hours, Barron would give the results from Western New York’s two harness racing tracks — Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs. This is where John learned what exactas, quinellas, trifectas and daily doubles were all about. From then on, he always paid attention to harness racing, and when Niatross (a legendary Western New York horse) hit the scene in 1979, his interest began to blossom.
John believes harness racing is a sport that has the potential to grow and he will explore ways to get that done via marketing, promotion and, above all, the races themselves.
When he’s not watching races, John is busy with his family and his job in sales. Like the pacers and trotters, he does a little running himself and you’ll occasionally find him “going to post” in a local 5K race.