July 31, 2012
How could you go through the drought we are encountering this year and not be rooting for a horse with a name like Winter Memories to win? If you did, you cashed. That was not by accident, however, since Winter Memories didn’t win off the name, but from the quality career of racing with which she has become identified.
I used to have a friend who held to the philosophy that, when handicapping on a Saturday, “Bet the gray, on Saturday.” Winter Memories, a four-year gray/roan filly has captured eight of her 12 starts and is three-for-four at Saratoga. I don’t hold to the “Gray on Saturday” theory of handicapping, but it worked a couple of times. Just enough to break anyone dedicated to sticking with it for the whole day.
There were only six in Winter Memories’ race on Saturday, while eight three-year-olds lined up for the Jim Dandy Stakes, one race later. On Sunday a $1 million purse was only enough of a lure for six contenders in the featured Haskell Invitational at Monmouth.
Only five made it to the Apple Blossom Handicap this year at Oaklawn, in spite of a $500,000 purse, and this week there are only three starters anticipated in England, to take on the great Frankel, for the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on Wednesday, for a purse of over $500,000. The dearth of competition, even though it’s against the finest horses in the world, can be laid directly on the short foal crops and the abundance of racing opportunities, which allows runners to duck the best and still make a profit. But the numbers of possible runners are dropping dramatically.
Thank God there are still some racemeets where winning in that location is important. While there are unique races which draw some attention, the fact is that crowds at the races are disinterested in the short fields While they love their heroes. I saw throngs at Saratoga come out for “hat day” on Saturday and proudly wear their red hats with the Saratoga logo. The same response was evident on Sunday at Monmouth, where the blue hats with Monmouth’s name and logo were prominent. What I didn’t see were hats with the names of their favorite horses. There appears to be an attachment to certain tracks, but the lack of favored horses is still lacking.
While I don’t know whether or not I’ll get to see superstar Frankel race in the Sussex on Wednesday, I’m under the impression that he has a following much like Zenyatta did in the U.S. during her racing career. Clearly the Aussies are solidly behind their beloved Black Caviar. Both horses have registered undefeated records over a span of time and, even with the difficulty of finding competition eager to get whipped by the stars, the public show for their performances. Zenyatta often had the same problem.
Short fields can be tolerated under such circumstances. When I was a youngster there was a short field at Keeneland the day I saw Buckpasser win. What did he beat? He beat whoever would show up on that day. But that was the exception in those years. Lately it has become more of the rule.
What makes Saratoga and Del Mar so much fun at this time of year is that racetrackers like to win at those locations. The stakes races seem to have enough horses to maintain interest and even with the big stars lacking, like for Saturday’s Jim Dandy and Sunday’s Haskell at Monmouth, the races and the places seem to make a difference.
What concerns me is the rest of the week, not just racing on the weekends. Racing once upon a time lured fans during the week. Clearly the extremes of weather have hurt daytime racing this year, but so, too, has the shortage of horses. Tracks putting together fields of more than seven horses during the week are becoming fewer on a regular basis. It used to be that there were plenty of maidens and maiden claiming horses to fill out a card. That is no longer the case. Even those tracks with purses augmented by gaming income are experiencing the problem. We’re coming ever closer to the time when only the strong will survive. The little guys, the bush tracks, are doomed.
I don’t think we have a star on the racing horizon in America which can draw a crowd by its very presence. Once Saratoga and Del Mar close their doors this summer, there will be a disturbing lack of interest in what’s going on in racing. All the efforts of those located in the larger markets of New York, California, and even Kentucky, will struggle to get the kind of support necessary to make a dent into the coverage of our sport in local or national media. There is enthusiasm for Breeders’ Cup, as long as it offers some compelling competitions. So far this year, except for us racing geeks, that hasn’t been happening. With competition for the best horses in the world coming from France and England at exactly the time Breeders’ Cup will be staged, the races appear like national championships rather than World Championships, as they are advertised.
In a year of Olympics, the fact that we have been putting up short fields with unrecognizable horses to the general public isn’t going to make its mark. Without good international competition, we are stuck with largely the very state-bred competitions which Oaklawn avoided for as long as it could.
As a racing lover, I have been somewhat disappointed in what has been out there for us to enjoy this year. No wonder, then, that when a horse came along with a name like Winter Memories, I was attracted. Even as a short-priced favorite, she caught my attention. I only wish I owned a “Winter Memories” hat. Until then I’ll proudly wear my Oaklawn hat. I don’t want Saratoga or Del Mar to close and I don’t want Arlington Million Day to be a one-day event, but my racing enthusiasm, when the aforementioned are complete, may be on a sort of hiatus until we can open up in Arkansas in January. I’m concerned about the relevance of Breeders’ Cup not just this year, but in the future.
Years ago my father brought home an audio tape of a speaker addressing a business trade show. That man made the dramatic statement that “if you want to change, you have to change.” Whatever changes we need to make, now is the time. We’ve yielded much of the rest of the year to football, both college and pro, so we have some time to kick our own sport up a notch. Let’s not be afraid, lest we be left with only “Winter Memories.” In the meantime, I am dependent on my air conditioner as my best friend. That and my Zenyatta cap.