By Bill Finley
It’s racing during the frigid winter months at a blue-collar racetrack, so Aqueduct may not always be the easiest sell. But New York Racing Association (NYRA) officials are expecting a strong five-month run once the track opens Nov. 6, counting on robust purses to convince owners and trainers to choose the Big A over options like Gulfstream and Oaklawn.
Typically, purses decrease once the fall meet at Belmont is over. Racing at Aqueduct handles less than it does at Belmont and there is a drop off in the quality. But this year, that won’t happen. Thanks to robust handle of late and the reopening of the casino at Aqueduct, NYRA was put in a position to raise purses. The higher purses went into effect Oct. 18 at Belmont, but will carry over to Aqueduct. NYRA Senior Vice President, Racing Operations Martin Panza said NYRA will dedicate about $2.5 million more to purses at Aqueduct than was the case a year earlier.
“If owners are struggling or looking to justify why they are in the game, I hope they realize that the purses are going to be pretty significant in New York this year,” Panza said. “Before we raised the purses, our claiming purses were pretty much higher than anyone else’s in the country. Now, we are going to spend an extra $2.3 to $2.5 million from Dec. 7 through the end of March. That is a lot of money and a lot of money for owners.”
While Aqueduct has always had good purses, the competition for horses in the winter has never been more fierce. With purses exploding thanks to the success of its casino, Oaklawn’s racing gets better every year. The success of Historical Horse Racing machines has helped Turfway Park improve its product. Gulfstream may not be able to compete with New York when it comes to purses, but its warm weather and abundant sunshine are powerful draws.
“With what has taken place in Arkansas and in Kentucky over the last year, year and a half, we’re going to pivot on a lot of our purses,” Panza said. “We want to be more competitive on the overnight purses or at least as competitive as those other facilities.”
Rather than raise purses across the board, Panza and his team have picked out certain categories to accentuate. The purse for a maiden special weight race has gone from $64,000 to $80,000, the pot for a $25,000 claiming race has been raised to $50,000 and a $40,000 maiden claimer will go for $43,000.
“How do you get owners to say ‘I’ve got 12 horses and instead of having all 12 at track XYZ, because of the purse levels, I’m going to send four or five to a trainer who will be running in New York in the winter?” Panza said. “That’s what we are hoping to accomplish with this.”
Field size at Aqueduct can be a problem and while that is not good for handle, Panza said it’s another reason why horsemen might want to chose New York.
“With our dirt racing, we average small fields and there is an opportunity for people to come in and take advantage of that, especially at these purse levels,” he said.
NYRA is so intent on keeping horses in New York and attracting new ones for the winter that it is about to embark on a marketing campaign to get the message out about the purses. It’s something, Panza says, that should have been done before.
“In the past, we have probably done a poor job of explaining the value of being here in the winter,” he said.
Panza is hopeful there will be a domino effect, that higher purses will lead to bigger fields which will result in a bigger handle.
“What we are doing will be an experiment to see if higher purses drive larger field size and if larger field size drives more handle,” he said. “Trainers here have asked us to take a look at this and we’re going to try it and see if it makes a difference.”
In March, there were justifiable fears that the purse levels at the NYRA tracks would eventually take a big hit. Revenues from VLT machines, which account for about 38% of the total amount of purse money, were cut off when the Aqueduct casino shut down Mar. 16 due to the coronavirus. Three days later, racing was halted in New York.
Once Belmont resumed racing in June, the handle numbers have been impressive. They were up during the spring meet at Belmont and were, essentially, even during Saratoga, even though there was almost no on-track wagering. During the first 17 days of the Belmont fall meet, handle has averaged over $10 million a day, a 27% increase over 2019 numbers.
Panza believes that the handle has been impacted by the extensive coverage NYRA now receives from the FOX Sports networks.
“A lot of what is happening here has to do with our TV strategy,” he said. “People are staying at home, working from home. Getting on FOX and having our signal out there allows us to reach a lot of people. We’re not on TVG, like we used to be, for five minutes every hour. We are on FOX and talking about our races for four, five, six hours a day and that has paid tremendous dividends. It’s no longer a case where they go to Belmont for a race when they are loading in the gate and then the race is over and they go to another track before you even know what the running order was. Because of FOX, we are able to give a much better presentation of our product.”
Panza said that if the handle numbers continue to go up, there may be another purse increase come the spring. For now, though, he is focused on Aqueduct.
“There is going to be a great opportunity for people to race for a lot of money here this winter,” he said. “The message we want to get out is that we have made a serious commitment to winter racing.”