The annual Saratoga preview, held last night at the National Museum of Racing in the Hall of Fame, was standing room only, with racing fans turning out to hear the thoughts of trainer Nick Zito, jockey Alan Garcia, NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward, and Glens Falls Post-Star writer/handicapper Kyle Brownell. Though the room had emptied a bit by 8:30, when the event ended, there was no dearth of interest in the coming meet and no shortage of questioners from the audience. Too much ground was covered to re-cap fully here, but here are some of the highlights:
Mike Kane, communications director for the Racing Museum, moderated the event smoothly and skillfully, encouraging questions for all panel members and keeping things moving. He began the conversation by asking Nick Zito about upcoming plans for his horses. Both Anak Nakal and Da’ Tara are slated to run in this weekend’s Jim Dandy, but Zito wanted to talk about Commentator, who’ll be racing in the Whitney on Saturday. Zito referred to the seven-year-old as “a treasure,” and emphasizing (as he did throughout the evening) his love of racing history and tradition, said that he’d love see his older horse join the ranks of Kelso and Forego, as horses who won big races at advanced (!) ages.
Kane’s first question to Hayward was about the status of the franchise. Hayward noted that NYRA is on its sixth extension, this one due to expire on August 28th. He outlined three things holding up the finalization of the franchise deal: 1) the need to take the approved legislation to contract. Without a contract, the legislation that grants the franchise is subject to change; 2) the need to settle the agreement with the state and transfer the land from NYRA to the state; 3) the need to complete the leases of the properties from the state to NYRA.
This last issue is currently the most challenging; though the Saratoga lease is fairly straightforward, the possibility of development at Belmont and the unresolved VLT contract at Aqueduct make these leases impossible to complete at this time. Hayward sounded encouraged that the issues could be resolved in the near future.
When asked what it felt like to win the Belmont, Alan Garcia said that it was impossible to describe; he noted that Zito gave him instructions for the race and that Da’ Tara “did his job.” When asked if he looked back for Big Brown at any point, Garcia laughed and said no, that he kept his eyes ahead of him until he got within view of the infield screen, when he sneaked a look at the TV and was astonished to see how far in front he was.
Kyle Brownell said that he doesn’t come into the Saratoga season looking for any particular handicapping angles or relying on last year’s form. He noted Kent Desormeaux’s, Cornelio Velasquez’s, and Bill Mott’s successes from last year, but also pointed out that the man who used to dominate Saratoga, Todd Pletcher, wasn’t as successful last year and indicated that he thought that Garcia had a shot to be a dominant jockey this year, given his popularity with trainers and success over the last year.
Making the sort of statements that endears him to the locals, Zito frequently emphasized his love for Saratoga; one such comment was that if the best of racing were a Coke bottle, it was for years filled half with Keeneland and half with Saratoga. Now, he says, it’s all Saratoga. “There’s no better place in racing than Saratoga. Period.” The question of synthetic tracks came up several times and while both Zito and Hayward addressed them, each indicated that he’d speak at greater length at the full-day forum on synthetics next week.
Thence to questions from the audience:
Zito on War Pass: he was injured more seriously than initially thought, and he won’t race again this year. Lane’s End has purchased 75% of him, and Zito would like to convince Bill Farish to run the colt next year.
Brownell on Big Brown’s loss in the Belmont: it can’t be attributed to one factor but to many, including the colt’s lack of experience and seasoning and likely the heat.
Hayward on the same: comparing the Belmont to War Pass’s loss in the Tampa Bay Derby, Hayward commended Zito and LaPenta for reacting to the defeat “with class.” The elliptical comparison couldn’t have been more obvious.
Hayward on the increased take-out as a result of the OTB bailout: “Outrageous, counter-productive, bad business.” He indicated that the mandated increase will mean that out-of-state customers will get a higher return on their bets than New York customers, and that the mandate may well conflict with Kentucky gambling (I wish that I’d taken better notes here–it made sense when he talked about, but I’m missing the details). Hayward declared that the take-out should be 14%; anything higher reduces business, and that NYRA is going to try to “make it right.” He said that those involved lacked the expertise to make a good decision.
Garcia on the differences between racing at Saratoga and racing at Belmont: A jockey can be more patient at Belmont and after racing there for several months, he needs to adjust to the tighter turns here. He also noted the increased competition between jockeys at Saratoga. When asked if he was “scared” of any particular jockeys, Garcia sort of bashfully said, “No,” to which Zito said, “You better not be!” I haven’t at all captured here how engaging Garcia was; there’s a charming self-deprecation about him, and he’s pretty funny, too.
Various panel members on turf sprints: they’ve steadily increased since 2005, and Hayward indicated that they sometimes replace other races in the condition book that don’t fill. Brownell noted that the variety of horses entered (dirt sprinters, turf horses cutting back) make the races hard to handicap, and Garcia, a lead
writer rider for queen of the turf sprints Linda Rice, laughed and said that he’d be happy for NYRA to card even more of them.
Other topics raised during the evening were the anti-speed bias at Belmont in mile and a sixteenth and seven furlong turf races; the possibility of a program in New York for those interested in becoming trainers; last summer’s gate problems; Trackus at New York tracks; whether horses are indeed more fragile now than in the past; purse incentives for bigger fields; track surfaces; marketing the sport; fan organizations. I hope to write about these topics in the next few days, but if any of them particularly interests you, please let me know and I’ll make sure to pass on what I heard.
The funniest moment of the evening came near the end; during the discussion about bringing new fans to the game, Hayward had mentioned NYRA Nation. A few minutes later, in response to another question, he mentioned that he’s from New England, when Zito interjected, “Oh, sure, now I get it—NYRA Nation! We’ll see what Mr. Steinbrenner has to say about that!” It drew a big laugh from the crowd, likely a mix of Red Sox and Yankees fans, though there were a lot of out-towners in attendance.
Hayward and Zito clearly have a lot of affection for each other, and there were times when the event felt a little like a lovefest, but the participants seemed to speak pretty frankly about where things are as the Saratoga meet begins, and they seemed to gain a lot of good will. It wasn’t a press conference–hard hitting journalists weren’t grilling them—but the crowd was informed and thoughtful, and each panel member took seriously the questions they were asked. I imagine that they built up some good will as we go into the meet. Unlike the Sunday open house, this is an event I’d imagine returning to each year. Major issues facing racing were addressed, and if you weren’t already a fan of these folks when you walked in, you likely were walking out.