What, exactly, is it that makes a racing meet “boutique”? We hear the term all the time, usually referring to Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland, meets known for their brevity, the quality of the racing, and their popularity.
Recently, bettors have come out in full voice decrying the diminished quality of racing at Saratoga (too many state-breds, too many claimers, too many turf sprints), and I’m sure that I’ve heard similar complaints about Del Mar, though I don’t follow that meet as closely (or, truth be told, at all, really).
The word “boutique” comes from the French for “shop”; Merriam-Webster offers the following definitions:
1 a: a small fashionable shop b: a small shop within a large
2: a small company that offers highly specialized services or products
It’s not a big jump from the word’s denotation to its metaphorical and descriptive use, its shift from a noun to an adjective, in its association with smaller racing meets. It makes sense, particularly in a market in which any product that is seen as limited is considered desirable, and many race fans who seek ways to broaden the sport’s popularity are on record as calling for more “boutique” meets, arguing that less is more.
I’ll leave that discussion to others, but having left a desolate Belmont Park on Saturday, on a day on which two Grade I races were run, I found myself asking, “Why isn’t the Belmont fall meet considered ‘boutique’?”
Size aside (can anything as big as Belmont be considered “boutique”?), in terms of racing product, there’s not much difference between Saratoga and Belmont. The former offers 36 racing days, the latter 38. Saratoga presents thirty-three graded stakes races (fifteen of them Grade I’s, or 45%), Belmont twenty-three (ten of them Grade I’s, or 43%). Saratoga is known for establishing some of the divisional leaders in racing’s second season, while Belmont opens the pre-Breeders’ Cup, third season of the racing year. While each meet has lost some of its former luster, no one could deny that horses in the mix for end of year honors establish themselves in the summer at Saratoga and in the fall at Belmont—though the effect on Belmont of the Breeders’ Cup being held at a track with a synthetic surface for the next two years remains to be seen.
Even given the terrible weather forecast on Saturday, the emptiness of Belmont was discouraging; while attendance was way off during those first few dreadfully rainy days at Saratoga, fans and bettors still turned out. Even on a perfect weather day of great racing, Belmont can seldom expect more than 10,000 people to show up.
So does a “boutique” meet lead to higher attendance, or do we call meets with high attendance “boutique”? I rather suspect the latter. Do “boutique” meets only happen in places that already attract visitors (such as Saratoga and Del Mar) or that are in the heart of horse country (Keeneland)? Is the Meadowlands a boutique meet?
These fall weekends at Belmont are as compelling to me as the summer ones at Saratoga; the weather is frequently gorgeous, the racing is terrific, and I get to see the equine and human stars of the sport. If I could only convince a few more of my fellow New Yorkers to drag themselves away from the other weekend charms of the tri-state area, we might have one more meet to add to the “boutique” list.