The Week in Review: Will Reality Trump Perception in Spa's Main-Track Miles?


Saratoga clubhouse turn | Sarah Andrew


Potentially, there's a lot to like about last Friday's announcement that the New York Racing Association (NYRA) will be resurrecting Saratoga's long-dormant chute adjacent to the clubhouse turn to enable the running of one-mile dirt races for the first time in decades.

Any nod to history–especially at America's most history-steeped track–is generally a welcome idea. Originally dubbed the “Wilson Chute” in honor of Richard T. Wilson, the president of the Saratoga Racing Association during the early 20th century, the perpendicular-to-the-stands starting area that ran more or less parallel to Nelson Avenue debuted 120 years ago and remained in use for seven decades before being repurposed as a parking lot in 1972.

Because Saratoga is a 1 1/8-miles oval, two-turn dirt starts at distances of one mile or 1 1/16 miles don't exist because the run into the clubhouse bend has been deemed too short to be fair or safe. The new mile chute should add distance diversity, filling the gap between seven-furlong races that start on the backstretch and nine-furlong contests that begin in front of the stands.

Plus, quirky track configurations are appealing if done right. Think of Santa Anita's unique downhill turf course or the undulating, all-grass topography of Kentucky Downs. The only other North American dirt track with a similar mile-chute setup, Ellis Park, was actually modeled after Saratoga's Wilson Chute when it was built as Dade Park a century ago.

But before wading too deeply into nostalgia and aesthetics, let's be candid: If the idea of one-mile races around 1 1/2 turns at Saratoga is such a no-brainer, why is NYRA just now trying to revive the concept?

After the Wilson Chute fell out of favor in the early 1970s, one-mile starts near that spot were brought back briefly in 1992. But that configuration wasn't so much a true chute as a different gate placement in which mile races started at an angle on the turn.

By the end of that meet 30 years ago, the prevailing perception among horseplayers and horsemen was that those starts were disadvantageous to outside-drawn runners and potentially dangerous because of crowding into the too-quick turn. As a result, we haven't seen a main-track mile at the Spa since.

But do those perceptions match reality? Not if you believe the charts from the 25 one-mile dirt races run at Saratoga in '92.

Before we delve into those numbers, a bit of history:

The 1902 Saratoga meet represented a major positive turn in the history of the track. Its owners had undertaken a $1 million overhaul ($32 million in today's dollars) that included rotating the entire track and its stands 30 degrees (so spectators would no longer be blinded by afternoon sun), and the oval was elongated from one mile to its current nine furlongs. An inside turf track was seeded (but not used) that season, and within that oval was the steeplechase course “with its liverpools and hurdles,” according to a June 1, 1902, write-up in the New York Times.

“The new track is built on scientific principles,” the Times gushed. “It has a mile shoot at the west and a seven-eighth-mile shoot at the south-west end. It always proved awkward starting horses on the curves of the old track, and these new shoots will remedy the difficulty experienced last year.”

Yes, America's newspaper of record actually called them “shoots,” not “chutes.”

On opening day, Aug. 4, 1902, it took five full minutes to get a field of 14 lined up (the starting gate had yet to be invented), and Vincennes stormed from off the pace to win the first-ever mile chute race at Saratoga.

If Saratoga's oddly configured mile races were considered problematic during the next 70 years, those complaints are almost entirely absent from surviving archived news reports.

Then again, the racing press for most of the 20th Century was collectively reluctant to criticize decisions by racetrack managements. Plus, back then there were no internet forums or social media platforms on which horseplayers could air constant, daily gripes. It's possible those races were indeed heavily biased in terms of running style or post positions. But any bettor keen enough to notice probably kept quiet and used that knowledge to cash tickets.

Fast-forward to '92. As Joseph Durso wrote in his opening-day piece for the Times, “For the last 22 years, Saratoga has omitted any one-mile [dirt] races…. The problem was solved by widening the first turn so that the starting gate could be placed on the far outside of the track, aiming the horses across the curve of the turn in something resembling a straightaway. But the configuration still seemed strange.”

As the field paraded in front of the stands for the revival of main-track miles, jockey Julie Krone made eye contact with trainer Scotty Schulhofer and owner Tommy Valando in a clubhouse box.

“She nodded toward the gate, patted the No. 5 [saddle towel] and shrugged,” Durso wrote. “She was fifth in a field of five, and she was saying, in effect: 'I start in right field.'”

As Durso pointed out, Krone finished in right field too, fourth behind a wire-to-wire favorite from post two.

The very next race on the card was also a dirt mile, and it too was wired, from post one. The trend continued into the weekend, with the first four races on that 1 1/2-turn configuration won by speed-centric horses from inner posts.

But shortly thereafter, the trend regressed toward the mean. By the end of the meet, after 25 main-track miles at the Spa, five were won in gate-to-wire fashion, nine by horses dueling or forcing the pace, three by midpack stalkers, and eight by deep closers.

Considering that speed is the prevailing winning style in American dirt racing, a split of 14 on-the-pace winners versus 11 who closed from at least midpack hardly rates as a glaring bias.

It's a bit more complicated to parse performance based on post positions because most main-track miles that summer featured seven or fewer starters, meaning low-post horses simply made more starts than higher-drawn horses.

A number of those races were also either off-the-turfers and/or races run on wet tracks, which exacerbated scratches. Given those much shorter fields, it's no surprise that the three innermost posts combined for 15 victories.

But post four actually produced the most wins overall. The breakdown was post one (4), post two (6), post three (5) and post four (7), with posts five, six and nine accounting for one winner each. So post position stats aren't terribly indicative of a bias, either.

Still, racetrack perceptions die hard. This past weekend, an informal skim of opinions on Twitter and in online handicapping forums revealed what I would estimate to be a 3:2 ratio of “terrible idea” posts outnumbering “great idea” opinions on the revival of the Wilson Chute.

The late Marshall Cassidy, NYRA's erudite announcer between 1979 and 1990 (and a backup caller before and after those dates), weighed in on the idea of bringing back the Wilson Chute in a 2010 comment posting that lives on in the Brooklyn Backstretch blog.

“As to the desirability of a Mile Chute, the beauty of that option lies only in one's wish for comparison shopping,” Cassidy wrote. “Saratoga Race Course abounds in character and uniqueness. As well as lots of oak beams, glorious trees, dripping heat and the Saddling Bell, Saratoga has no Mile races on the dirt. And that is good. My experiences with the Wilson Chute are best described as the Impossible Challenge in that I couldn't see the start from the Announcer Booth (neither could the Racing Form's chart caller!).

“As for the jockeys and racing officials, Wilson Chute starts carried the field diagonally over the crown of the dirt course with an immediate left turn inside the first 12 seconds. By the time they all straightened for the backstretch run, half the field was liable to and for injury or inquiry…” Cassidy wrote.

“As interesting an addition to the wagering menu as Mile-on-the-dirt at Saratoga might be, rest assured there are none now for practical reasons,” Cassidy summed up.

That opinion was penned a dozen years ago. It will now be the job of Glen Kozak, NYRA's senior vice president of operations and capital projects, to instill practicality where Cassidy and others have perceived it does not exist.

Speaking Jan. 14 at a meeting of NYRA's Franchise Oversight Board that granted the budgeting for the Wilson Chute and other projects, Kozak expressed confidence that by moving back the outside of the first-turn fence by up to nine feet, being able to get a full-sized starting gate into the chute, using newer designs of portable rails, and by tweaking the angle of where the chute meshes with the turn, safe and fair main-track miles will be achievable at the Spa this summer.

And if not, NYRA can always mull the concept over for another 30 years before trying it again in 2052.

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