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Why the grass is getting greener in New York

BUSINESS (NAT)Web Master
New York racing By Bill Heller Thoroughbred racing on Long Island is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. As the New York Racing Association (NYRA) made its annual seven-week summer pilgrimage to Saratoga, the future of racing at NYRA’s two Long Island racetracks, Belmont Park and Aqueduct, remains, in a single word, complex. NYRA’s recent, stunning announcement that it was converting Aqueduct’s 40-year-old inner dirt track into a second turf course – the first major renovation of a NYRA track in decades – immediately prompted questions about Belmont Park and possible reconstruction that could close racing there for a year or longer. It’s hard to believe that it’s being done solely to add a few grass races in April and November if the weather allows it. Regardless, having winter racing on Aqueduct’s main track will make it much more attractive to horsemen simply because it allows several different distances of races than the inner dirt track allowed. The ongoing interest of the New York Islanders in building a new hockey arena on Belmont Park property may or may not have a lot do with Belmont Park’s future. Reportedly, a new arena would not affect Belmont’s existing grandstand and clubhouse. Reading that situation is a difficult task since New York State is involved and will have the ultimate say. Then there was a bill that passed the New York State Senate in mid-June to allow evening racing at Belmont Park. The legislation didn’t make it out of the assembly but will be reintroduced next year. Meanwhile, in an interview with North American Trainer, NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay said that night racing is one of his priorities at Belmont. Other things on Kay’s agenda, in conjunction with NYRA’s new Board of Directors named on June 7th, are incentive programs for two-year-olds and marathon turfers; making a concerted effort to attract European shippers and serve bettors in Japan; and a reshuffling of major stakes to be held on one day. Also, NYRA introduced a new multiple-race wager and a new partnership platform for messaging-enabled commerce. What’s next? “We have this mantra of continuous improvement,” Kay said on June 30th, the day of his fourth anniversary at NYRA. “We’ve made a lot of good progress with a lot of good people. We try to prioritize enhancing the experience of our guests, improving the quality of racing and safety, and making NYRA financially sustainable for decades to come. I think we have achieved that.” That may be a stretch, but certainly nobody can accuse NYRA of standing pat. “I don’t mind experimenting,” trainer Rick Violette, the president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said. “The trick is the analysis.” NYRA has been operating New York’s three racetracks since 1955 and has the franchise through 2033, the result of a deal with the state of New York. NYRA renounced its claim to owning the valuable land and racetracks in exchange for a 25-year franchise extension, which was approved in early 2008. “When NYRA gave away the land, they gave up everything,” veteran trainer Mike Hushion said. “To me, it’s the biggest mistake in racing. You have the franchise, but you have no control over it.” Hushion, who retired at the end of the Belmont summer meet, has a point. If the Islanders decide to build a new arena at Belmont Park, the state of New York would be responsible for issuing requests for proposals (RFPs). A public hearing at the Elmont Public Library, not far from Belmont Park, was scheduled for July 10th. “I don’t know how this process is going to unfold,” Kay said. “I don’t know how the decision will be made. I think it’s exciting, and a variety of groups might respond to an RFP. If there is an RFP, I hope they share my interest in developing Belmont Park into a sports and entertainment center.” Kay is more direct about night racing, which would require the installation of lights. A bill that was sponsored by state senator Elaine Phillips, whose district is in the northwest portion of Nassau County, would allow racing “after sunset at Belmont Park, only at the main track in its current configuration, but only if such races conclude before 10:30 p.m. and only occur on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays.” Kay said, “The important thing is this: we want night racing at Belmont, not at Saratoga. We’ve got to create a new generation of fans. People with disposable income typically work during the day. It makes sense for us to have night racing, two days a week on Thursdays, Fridays, and occasionally Saturdays during the Belmont meets, 38 to 40 days each year.” Kay said the current twilight racing on Fridays at Belmont had less influence on his decision than the success of night racing at Churchill Downs, where three “Downs After Dark” programs, which featured food trucks, live music, and drink specials, attracted 59,200 fans earlier this summer. “They got substantially more fans to come out,” Kay said. “What you have to do is get people out and they’ll come back. They’ll become fans. We have lost a generation or two. How do we get them to come out? After work, it’s different. We want to make it into a party atmosphere.” On the track, Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, has slowly but surely started to build a new version of racing after he arrived in New York four years ago, following great success at Hollywood Park. “Martin was the first executive I hired,” Kay said. “He is very innovative. He’s strengthened the sport, made it compelling.” Panza has a realistic outlook on racing framed by decades of involvement. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and you never stop learning,” he said. “It’s not the same game more. Trainers want to race two-year-olds once a year, maybe twice. The tail is wagging the dog. We have to put more emphasis on racing, get our stars to run more often, preferably in the United States. It’s the only way the sport can survive.” Where do you start a new vision? With two-year-olds. To that end, NYRA instituted $100,000 maiden races and bonuses for two-year-olds who win a maiden race and a stakes. “When I first got here, there were like 67 two-year-old starters,” Panza said. “The two-year-old program had collapsed, and you can’t have that. You need to run two-year-old races in May, June, or July. It takes pressure off the older horses. We have all these stakes at Saratoga, we needed to find a way to feed the program. We had to get the trainers to believe we will run those races. We’re going to put them in the condition book and we’ll make it go. We’ve gotten almost every race to go, maybe not all of them, but 90 to 95 percent. Last year we had 222 two-year-old starts April to July. That’s nearly a four-time increase. We incentivized. It worked. Trainers were confident that the races were going to go. We’ll continue to do it because it’s working. It’s money well spent.” Violette thought so. “We need winners for stakes races at Saratoga,” he said. “We have to somehow attract more owners and trainers to come to New York. You see Keeneland, and the races are overflowing. Here, we got five. Martin wants to have $100,000 purses. We’ll see how it goes.” Other trainers weighed in. “I’m not opposed to it,” Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey said. “I know what he’s trying to do: build up the two-year-old program. I think that’s good.” Todd Pletcher, who won four of those $100,000 maiden races this summer, is all for it: “I applaud their efforts to get the two-year-old program off to an earlier start. Increasing the purses and the restoration of the Tremont and Astoria (Stakes) have jump-started the program. For a while, there weren’t many races for two-year-old in April and May. I think that’s reflective in that the races seem to be filling better this year. It’s good for two-year-olds.  It’s good for New York.” At the other end of the racing spectrum is long turf races for older horses. NYRA is also offering higher purses. “It seems fair that they’re diversifying the incentive programs,” Pletcher said. Panza said, “We wanted to increase the number of races and the distances of races. For allowance company, you don’t have to be Chad Brown with a stakes horse or a Todd Pletcher with a stakes horse. This is for maiden or allowance winners. We do write long-distance races in New York. We have a stakes program for those types of horses, so we need to have races for those types of horses. We get a lot of horses from Europe. The purses are small there, an allowance for $12,000. If you have an allowance race, why not ship them to New York? We need to bring stamina back in American racing. Long-distance turf horses seem to stay sounder. We need more horses to stay around so there can be fans of them. We do have the resources. We need to lead the industry.” NYRA’s rich turf stakes have resonated in Europe, which was represented by a slew of horses contesting turf stakes on Belmont Stakes weekend. In the $400,000 Grade 3 Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes, the top three finishers were based overseas: Red Cardinal in Germany, and St Michel in Britain, and Now We Can in France. The top two finishers in the $500,000 Grade 2 New York Stakes were Hawksmoor and Quidura, who were bred in Europe and began their careers in Britain and Germany, respectively, before being transferred to the U.S. last year. “When we got here 3½ years ago, we established a quarantine and isolation barn to handle three different shipments within a 48-hour period of time,” Panza said. “During Belmont Stakes week, we had horses from Germany, Ireland, France, England, and Japan. It’s a tribute to how far we’ve come.” More recently, in the $1 million Belmont Oaks and $1.2 million Belmont Derby on July 8th  – Stars and Stripes Day – seven of the 21 three-year-olds contesting the mile-and-a-quarter stakes were foreign-bred: five in Ireland and one each in Great Britain and Japan. In addition to attracting Japanese horses – including Epicharis, who was scratched from the Belmont Stakes – NYRA, which offered a $1 million bonus to any Japanese-based horse if he won the Belmont Stakes – sent its signal to Japan to allow betting on the final leg of the Triple Crown for the first time. “If we can get into the international markets, it’s going to help us grow our business,” Panza said. To that end, Panza has rescheduled major stakes to have a bundle of them on one racing card, an idea that was first initiated at NYRA more than 25 years ago by Allen Gutterman when he created a Breeders’ Cup Preview Day. Panza has built on that idea. This year’s Belmont Stakes Day included five Grade 1 stakes: the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, the $1.2 million Metropolitan Handicap, the $1 million Manhattan, the $750,000 Ogden Phipps, the $700,000 Acorn, and the $700,000 Just a Game, as well as the Grade 2 Woody Stephens. Panza deserves a high-five for luring Songbird out of California to make her much anticipated four-year-old debut in the Phipps. “Having a big day allows us to get new people,” Panza said. “It makes sense in New York. Shippers can come on the same plane. It’s not just about the Belmont Stakes, it’s about Belmont Stakes Day. I think it’s already made an impact. It’s the right way to maneuver. Take a race like the Met Mile. We moved it off Memorial Day. The last three years, the attendance that day was 9,000, 9,000, and 11,000. The race is now run in front of 60,000-to-90,000 people on national TV. It helps the race get more exposure. It’s good for NYRA, It’s good for business. It’s good for the industry.” Hall of Fame California trainer Bob Baffert is on board. Of course he is. On Belmont Stakes Day, he won two Grade 1s, a Grade 2, and a Listed race: the Acorn with Abel Tasman, the Metropolitan with Mor Spirit, the Woody Stephens with American Anthem, and the Easy Goer with West Coast. “NYRA’s done a great job,” Baffert told Lenny Shulman of The Blood Horse. “The money is ridiculous here; the fans are great. It’s tremendous racing.” Though the Breeders’ Cup Selection Committee has apparently forgotten it – the last time the Breeders’ Cup was held in New York was in 2005 – the quality of racing in New York has never been questioned. The pertinent question now is: how will that racing play out? Converting the inner dirt track into a second turf course at Aqueduct wasn’t done solely to add a few grass races in April and November. There is a bigger picture, one which obviously is still being developed. How it plays out will ultimately decide the future of Thoroughbred racing on Long Island.

Thoroughbred racing on Long Island is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. As the New York Racing Association (NYRA) made its annual seven-week summer pilgrimage to Saratoga, the future of racing at NYRA’s two Long Island racetracks, Belmont Park and Aqueduct, remains, in a single word, complex.

NYRA’s recent, stunning announcement that it was converting Aqueduct’s 40-year-old inner dirt track into a second turf course – the first major renovation of a NYRA track in decades – immediately prompted questions about Belmont Park and possible reconstruction that could close racing there for a year or longer.

It’s hard to believe that it’s being done solely to add a few grass races in April and November if the weather allows it. Regardless, having winter racing on Aqueduct’s main track will make it much more attractive to horsemen simply because it allows several different distances of races than the inner dirt track allowed.

The ongoing interest of the New York Islanders in building a new hockey arena on Belmont Park property may or may not have a lot do with Belmont Park’s future. Reportedly, a new arena would not affect Belmont’s existing grandstand and clubhouse. Reading that situation is a difficult task since New York State is involved and will have the ultimate say.

Then there was a bill that passed the New York State Senate in mid-June to allow evening racing at Belmont Park. The legislation didn’t make it out of the assembly but will be reintroduced next year. Meanwhile, in an interview with North American Trainer, NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay said that night racing is one of his priorities at Belmont.

Other things on Kay’s agenda, in conjunction with NYRA’s new Board of Directors named on June 7th, are incentive programs for two-year-olds and marathon turfers; making a concerted effort to attract European shippers and serve bettors in Japan; and a reshuffling of major stakes to be held on one day. Also, NYRA introduced a new multiple-race wager and a new partnership platform for messaging-enabled commerce.

What’s next?

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