SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — The greatest horse meet in the world starts tomorrow when the gates at Saratoga Race Course swing open for the 142d time. Whenever the summer track opens, the problems that plague horse racing throughout the year disappear into the wind.
The Spa drew an average of more than 25,000 fans per day for its 36-day meet last summer. Belmont Park, Saratoga’s big brother on the New York Racing Association circuit, was averaging 5,097 fans per day in the first 55 days of a 59-day spring meet.
All that ails NYRA is supposed to go away for the next 40 race days at Saratoga.
However, there are issues. Monmouth Park could lure horses to the Jersey Shore because they are offering bigger purses (and running just three days a week). They have already stolen reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, who is stabled at the Spa but will run at Monmouth on Saturday.
Another issue that bears watching is the dwindling number of horses throughout the land. Hollywood Park in California has had to cancel cards because of lack of entries. Charles Hayward, NYRA’s president and chief executive, rattled off the alarming numbers.
In 2007, there were 10,160 yearlings sold at auctions nationwide; the number dropped to 7,520 last year, nearly a 26 percent decline. A big reason for the decline in the horse colony is the dwindling economy. More people who used to own horses are getting out of the game because of the expense.
However, we’ll also see a lot of state bred races and that is good for some outfits, not so good for some others.
“We don’t have a lot of New York-breds, less than five percent of our stable is New York-breds,’’ said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Spa training title six times. “What we need to be successful at Saratoga is to be able to participate in open allowance races. If the cards are weighed heavily with a lot of New York-bred races and sprint races on the turf, we just don’t have the horses to participate in those categories.’’
However, Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, and top older horses Quality Road and Blame have Saratoga on their radar. So too does Pletcher’s 3-year-old filly Devil May Care, who could be running Saturday in the Coaching Club American Oaks.
“There is no question if you compare the cards they run now at Saratoga to the cards they ran 10 years ago, it doesn’t look the same,’’ Pletcher said. “It’s not only Saratoga, it’s racing in general. We are having cheaper cards.’’
Gary Contessa, a mainstay on the New York circuit, said he had more than 100 horses in his care a year ago. Right now, he has just more than 60.
He said the main reason that racing is suffering in New York is that state government is still stubbing its toes getting the long awaited video lottery terminals installed at Aqueduct, NYRA’s other track.
If and when that happens, purses would be greater in New York, something that has passed the state by. Contessa says horse owners are taking their horses out of New York and running for bigger purses in places like Philadelphia Park and Delaware (which have VLTs) and Monmouth.
“As soon as we get the VLTs, the sun will shine again but that line has gotten awfully old,’’ said Contessa, saying it has been nine years since the slots were supposed to be put in. “We read about the bad fields and the lack of purses in New York but, you can’t blame NYRA and Charlie Hayward. You give someone lemons, the best they can make is lemonade.’’
“Will we suffer some at Saratoga? Absolutely, we will,’’ Hayward said. “But, will we see some of the best 2-year-olds? Yes, we will. The older horses will be very good. I think a lot of people are writing about this but why don’t we wait until we run the races? It is a real issue but we are going to have a good Saratoga meet.’’