By Ed McNamara
Most days at Belmont Park, you could fire a cannon through the grandstand and not hit anybody. That old joke is close to the truth. But it’s handle, not attendance, that matters most, because the point of purchase is a smartphone or a laptop, not the track.
Spectator-free racing is a non-factor for most horseplayers, who bet from the couch while watching TVG. Except at the boutique meets — Saratoga, Keeneland, Del Mar – showing up hasn’t been an in thing for a long time. But racing without fans on event days – Belmont Stakes, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Travers, Breeders’ Cup – will severely impact the bottom line.
With no Triple Crown on the line, the Belmont Stakes isn’t a hot ticket. Last year, when different horses won the Derby and Preakness, the attendance was 56,217. Unfortunately, it will be zero on June 20 for the 152nd Belmont, which will cost the New York Racing Association many millions in ticket revenue.
A much bigger worry for NYRA would be empty stands throughout Saratoga’s 40-day meeting that begins July 16. The Spa generates an estimated $200 million for the local economy. If fans are barred there, the ripple effect on hotels, restaurants and other local businesses will be devastating.
An even greater horror would accompany a Derby weekend without spectators at Churchill Downs. Bloodhorse.com, referencing a study by Louisville Tourism, reported that last year’s Derby generated $373 million for the area’s economy. Before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed this year’s race from May 2 to Sept. 5, the projection was $410 million. Without that accustomed flood of megabucks, a fiscal tsunami would overwhelm Derby City.
We can only hope that summer won’t bring a second wave of coronavirus to upstate New York and Louisville. It would be sad to see two of racing’s shrines deserted and gutted financially.
Which brings me, in the most roundabout way possible, to Saturday’s excellent card at Churchill. It features five stakes, including the Matt Winn, which could produce runners for the Belmont. Let’s try to make a little money there. I can’t be tormented more brutally than I was on Churchill’s opening day, when I was nosed out of a $320 pick 3 in the finale of the sequence. If you played the ticket I suggested, we suffered together.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s races are even deeper and more competitive than they were a week ago. Trainer Tom Amoss predicted that trend before the meet.
“From the standpoint of handicapping, the races are going to be great for the bettor,” Amoss said. “They’re going to offer a lot of opportunities to take advantage of good odds on a horse that has a great chance to win.” On the flip side: “It’s a lot harder with 12-horse fields and a lot more potential outcomes in each race.”
Let’s accept that challenge in the late pick 4 with a $67.50 investment off a 50-cent base bet. Here are the numbers: 2,4,5,9,14 with 3,7,13 with 2,6,11 with 1,5,9.
And good luck.
There’s plenty of early speed (In Good Spirits, Outburst, Heir of Light, also-eligible Eve of War), so I looked for a stalker with a solid late kick. Alms (4-for-4, likely favorite) looks intimidating but is stuck out in post 14. It would be no surprise if she won anyway, but I’ll hedge and also use Abscond (2), Dominga (4), Hendy Woods (5) and Sharing (9).
A likely hot pace should help Global Campaign (3), who has tactical speed, strong late-pace figures and is 3-for-3 at 7 furlongs and a mile. His only losses in six starts came against Code of Honor and Tax, and he beat subsequent Belmont Stakes winner Sir Winston last year. Three-time stakes winner Silver Dust (7) drops from a Grade 3 and is a must-use. Mr. Money (13) is 3-for-4 at Churchill, including a runaway in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile on Derby Day last year.
This potential prep for the 1 1/8-mile Belmont Stakes features the long-awaited return of 2-for-2 Maxfield (10). The deep closer will be overbet in a field without much speed, and two slow starts are a concern. I’ll use him defensively. Although likely pacesetter Ny Traffic (6) is 0-for-4 in stakes, he gamely chased the gifted Wells Bayou all the way when second in the 1 1/8-mile Louisiana Derby. The shorter distance should help. The only other one who intrigues me is 2-for-2 Pneumatic (2), who closed strongly from midpack both times.
There’s no standout, even though likely favorite Hieronymus is 4-for-4. He led throughout each time in slow fractions, and he won’t get away with that against the much quicker Smooth Like Strait (9). I’ll leave out Hieronymus unless Smooth Like Strait is scratched. Gritty Field Pass (5), the most consistent closer, should have a decent shot at catching Smooth Like Strait unless he makes an easy lead. Deep closer South Bend (1) is 0-for-4 on grass but was a solid second to two-time stakes winner Decorated Invader, who would be odds-on here.
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Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.