Saratoga Opening Act Not Bad

Sunday, February 19, 2017

by John Furgele

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY—Opening Day at Saratoga Raceway was picturesque with brilliant sunshine and temps in the 50s. And, the crowd, buoyed by $1 hot dogs and $1 PBR drafts was in a good mood and surprisingly, fairly big. And, this despite the fact that there was nary a mention in the local media that Opening Day was approaching. Had this been the flat track across the street there would have been live reports and live broadcasting all day long. We know that the region fauns over the SRC and while that’s certainly valid, why not throw a little love at the harness track, which began season number 76 on Sunday?

Be that as it may, the betting windows were busy and the raceway generated over $469,000 in total handle for the 12-race card. The feature was a $12,000 Open Handicap Pace that saw Better Rock On N rally from off the pace to win in a fine time of 1:53.3. My pick, E Z Noah started from gate 7 and was second, with Roethblissberger third.

In the 11th, crowd favorite Blazin Benny led from start to finish to win the $5,500 Trot in 1:58.2. I was told by some trainers that Blazin’ is the ultimate warrior when it comes to racing. The nine-year gelding by Angus Hall often struggles between races, but when it is show time, he is always ready to go and the veteran clearly outclassed the field.

All in all, it was a good day, but there were some issues. One, they ordered 504 long-sleeve t-shirts and they were gone 15 minutes before the first race began. Why not order 2,500 and give them out until they’re gone whether that happens on opening day or one week later? They also didn’t shovel out the walkways so people could sit out on the benches. I guess they thought it would be too cold to be outside. One might have gotten the feel that harness racing was the second-class citizen to the gaming machines located inside. We know that the carpets get vacuumed before the next day; why not do some shoveling?   And, let’s admit, the racing is second to the casino, but does it have to be that obvious?

On the good side, the races were competitive and the buzz was palpable. Who knows how many more people would have shown up had the opener been marketed just a little bit? Service at the bar was solid and with $1 draft beers to be had, that can be a challenge.

I was fortunate enough to meet and talk to some trainers and certainly learned a few things during the day.   Since the track was banked, the times have been much faster, but that sometimes comes at a cost. Obviously, banked tracks put more stress on the left legs and that can result in more injuries to the pacers and trotters. Another positive was that every race was won in under two minutes; the best time was 1:53 and the slowest time was the aforementioned Blazin Benny’s 1:58.2

Saratoga is a racino and one can’t go to a harness track without bringing up the impact of VGMs.   Most agree that VGMs saved the sport from a certaon death, but that has also led to more money in purses which, in many ways, has squeezed out the “little guy.”. Saratoga paid out $89,200 in total purses yesterday.   In comparison, Monticello paid out $31,700 on their card last Thursday. If you want to race at Saratoga, it is tough for the $5,000 horse to run and win against the $50,000 one. The racing secretary will enter you in these races, but winning is more than a tall order.

Both Monticello and Vernon Downs got good reviews from the horsemen I talked to and one trainer in particular was looking forward to sending a couple of his horses there to Monticello to race in the near future.  Monticello is a step down in class while Vernon Downs features a 7/8 mile track and is owned by Meadowlands owner Jeffrey Gural.

Saratoga will race several Thursday afternoon cards this spring with 12:15 post times. It will be interesting to see how this compares/conflicts with Monticello, which races Monday-Thursday with 12:25 post times.   Monticello has always had the afternoon harness slot in New York State, but now they’ll have some competition.   And, despite lower purses, Monticello’s handle is as good or better than both Saratoga and Yonkers. The trainers told me that Monticello cares the most about the local guys and the smaller purses would reflect that. There has to be tracks that offer something for everyone.   Nobody wants to see harness racing become all-corporate like thoroughbred racing is; there has to be a place for the little guy to train and race at and right now, Monticello seems to be the track for this.

New York harness offers top end racing at Yonkers, which has seen its purses increase substantially in recent years.  After Yonkers, the purses drop with Saratoga, Buffalo/Batavia, Tioga and Vernon ranking very close to each other.  Monticello offers the lowest purses and clearly, each track serves its unique purpose.

Six of the seven harness tracks offer VGMs, which are open just about every day of the year and some of the revenues are given to the horsemen.  Tioga Downs is now a full-fledged casino, meaning that in addition to VGMs, table games are offered.  Amazingly, 92 percent goes back to the gamblers, but it is that 8 percent that gets cut up with some going to education and some to harness racing.

New York is experiencing casino growth. In addition to racinos (there is also one at Finger Lakes thoroughbred track), there are full-fledged casinos at Del Lago (Tyre, NY), Rivers (Schenectady, NY) and Tioga Downs (Nichols, NY) with a fourth one coming to the Catskills later this year. The Rivers Casino is just 26 miles south of the Saratoga casino and in the first week, Rivers took in $23.1 million while there was a drop of $800,000 at Saratoga Hotel Casino.

When I visit racinos, I wonder aloud, “where do people get the money to gamble away here?”  Is there that that much wealth in New York State, or are people coming here in the hopes of tripling their pay check?  How many casinos can New York handle?  In addition to the racinos and the soon-to-be four casinos, there are Indian casinos at Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Salamanca, Vernon and the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. How many more can the state allow?  When will the appetite decrease and when it does, will New York look like Atlantic City with boarded up palaces?

For now, harness racing moves forward. They will still get their money from the casinos and the bettors will continue to make their wagers. For one day, Saratoga looked radiant with a festive, lively crowd and some good action on a brilliant sun-splashed day. Let’s hope this is not a one-time event.

See you at the races

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