The Week In Review: The Year In Which Saratoga Lost Its Mojo

Saratoga | Sarah Andrew

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At the conclusion of racing on Monday, Saratoga will have handled about $800 million for the meet, the third highest handle figure ever for the track. On-track attendance once again topped one million, and was officially at 1,055,543 after Saturday's GI Jockey Club Gold Cup Day card with two racing days to go.

Yet, by just about any measure, it was not a good meet. Saratoga came into 2023 with the wind at its back. Every year the racing seemed to get bigger, the handle would grow and more and more fans would pile into the historic racecourse. Taking out the Covid year, handle had risen at Saratoga for five straight years.

Would Saratoga ever lose its momentum or would it keep growing exponentially?

It turned this year. The 12 fatalities, including two particularly gruesome ones that occurred in full view of packed grandstand and before a national TV audience, were as bad as it gets. How many racing fans were turned into ex-racing fans on those days? NYRA has always taken the safety of the horses and jockeys very seriously and will no doubt continue to put in place measures to keep both safe.

They have some control over horse safety, but none over the weather, which was a huge problem at the meet. During the 2022 meet, only 15 races came off the grass. Through Sunday of the 2023 meet, 65 races had come off the grass. There had been 189 grass races run in 2022 versus 129 this year. That always leads to the same problems. When races come off the turf there are always a number of scratches, typically creating off-the-turf races with four or five-horse fields. On Aug. 10, an off-the-turf race actually turned into a match race. This is stuff no one wants to bet on.

NYRA is ready to do what it can to address that problem. NYRA President and CEO Dave O'Rourke has said that there is serious interest in installing a synthetic track at Saratoga by the 2025 meet. It wouldn't replace either the dirt main track or the two turf courses but would give NYRA a third option when it comes to racing surfaces and the synthetic track would largely be put to use when the rains washed races off of the turf.

The weather has been a problem, but if you dig a bit further you can find some signs that Saratoga handle was affected by more than the rain. On GI Travers Day 2023, when two races came off the turf, the handle was $50,183,271. In 2022, the handle was $55,559,315 when one race came off the grass. This past Saturday, on GI Jockey Club Gold Cup Day, they bet $27,400,509 on a day not impacted by weather. The year before the handle was $32,505,600.

“I think what happened is with all the earlier rain we lost some momentum and when that happened it's hard to get it back,” O'Rourke said.

Field size fell by 2.5 percent, from 7.75 to 7.56. A more telling number was the average handle per betting interest. It was $255,773 this year and $272,599 last year, for a drop of 6.2%.

What's done is done and there's nothing to do now but turn the page and hope Saratoga 2024 is one of the safest meets in history and the weather is gorgeous from opening day to closing day. The place is still magical and popular, but everything peaks at some point. Maybe that's happened to Saratoga.

European Dominance On The Turf

This is getting a bit ridiculous. U.S. racing is used to second-flight European horses coming over and winning some of our biggest grass race, but the year European shippers are having this year shows that our grass horses are vastly inferior. Take Saturday's GIII $2 million Mint Millions at Kentucky Downs. There was only one European shipper in the field, Ancient Rome (War Front), who is trained by Charlie Hills and was ridden by Jamie Spencer. Facing the likes of GI winner Annapolis (War Front), he came into it off a win in a handicap race. Before that you had to go all the way back to 2021 for his last graded win, a victory in the GIII Prix des Chenes in France. He won that by a half-length. He won the Mint Millions by a half-length.

A week earlier, it was Bolshoi Ballet (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}). He came into the GI Sword Dancer after losing by 21 1/2 lengths in the GI King George VI and Queen Elizabeth I Stakes, where he went off at 125-1. Yet, that was good enough to win the Sword Dancer by 4 1/2 lengths. The win broke a nine-race losing streak, going back to the 2021 GI Belmont Derby where he also took advantage of a weak group of U.S. turf horses.

Then there's Aspen Grove (Ire) (Justify). She was sent off at 50-1 in the GI Irish 1,000 Guineas and finished last beaten 14 1/2 lengths. But that was good enough for her to take home first prize of $500,000 in the GI Belmont Oaks Invitational in her next outing.

Good luck to our horses in the Breeders' Cup turf races.

Surprise, Surprise, Still No News Out Of Saudi Arabia

Back in 2020, Maximum Security (New Year's Day) crossed the line in front in the 2020 $20 million Saudi Cup. Just a few days later, his trainer, Jason Servis, was arrested and charged with using performance-enhancing drugs on most of the horses in his barn. When that news broke, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia said it was withholding the purses until it could investigate the situation

It's been 29 months since Servis was indicted, he has pled guilty and in November will begin a four-year prison sentence. The case is over, but the Saudis still haven't paid out the purse. Presumably, the winner's share of $10 million will eventually go to Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute). But no one has been paid as the Saudis, who should have all the evidence they'll ever need, do nothing and don't seem to be in any hurry to write a check. We tried to get an update on the situation this week, but the answer we got didn't really answer anything.

“Due to the extended nature of the judicial process in the USA, the JCSA has been unable to fully conduct its own investigation into the awarding of the winner's prize for The Saudi Cup 2020,” wrote the JCSA's Sarah Tregoning in response to an email sent by the TDN. “Now that the legal process in the USA has finished, the JCSA expects to swiftly conclude its own investigation and make an announcement in the coming weeks.”

I wouldn't hold your breath.

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