Saratoga preview

It was standing room only in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing last night; I arrived about ten minutes before the 7:00 start time, and Museum staff were scurrying to find extra chairs to bring in.

Last evening’s guests at the annual Saratoga meeting preview were NYRA president Charlie Hayward; racing secretary P.J. Campo; 2008 training title holder Kiaran McLaughlin; and jockey Calvin Borel, who was also appeared in 2007. The evening was moderated by Museum communications officer Mike Kane.

Kane introduced each participant, and when he got to Campo, he said, “If you like those turf sprints, he’s the guy to thank. If you don’t like them, he’s the guy to complain to.” And in fact, given the general grousing about the way Saratoga racing has declined and the races that are carded, I rather thought that Campo might be in for a bit of a tough evening. Instead, few questions were directed towards him, and the most prominent comment on the racing came during a rather bizarre incident, when a man walked down the center aisle to approach the stage, ignored the orderly hand-raising and recognition by Kane that had preceded all other questions, and lavished praise on the racing secretary. This happened towards the end of the program and led Hayward to commend the way that Campo juggles trainers’ racing goals with those of the track.

Hayward spoke first, characterizing these couple of days as “the night before Christmas,” and recalling his most exciting racing memory: Personal Ensign running down Winning Colors to stay undefeated. He compared the excitement of that moment to watching the overhead shot of Borel on Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby. Kane recalled watching the 1988 Distaff and chanting, “Beat Lukas, beat Lukas,” when a voice came from the end of the table: “Easy, easy,” said McLaughlin, D. Wayne Lukas’s assistant at the time. “I was in for a half a percent of that defeat.”

Hayward spoke about some of the plans for Saratoga and the now-seemingly-mythical VLT money, which would be used to improve public bathrooms at the track and accommodations for the backstretch workers. In response to a later question expressing concern about retaining the character of Saratoga, Hayward assured the crowd that any plans would take into account the history of this old track and ensure that the current “racing experiences” here would be maintained. “We won’t build a Churchill or a Gulfstream here,” he vowed.

Campo spoke briefly about upcoming stakes races and the purse incentives that will be offered in route and off-the-turf races, adding that purses will be about $650,000 a day during the meet.

McLaughlin noted some of his upcoming expected runners: Charitable Man and Flat Bold in the Jim Dandy, Colina Verde in the Diana. He mentioned That’s How I Roll, who will be starting in the Schuylerville, saying that she flipped in the gate last time and had to be scratched, and that she’s been gate schooling since; he’s pleased with her outside post tomorrow.

Mike Kane then asked about Saratoga Russell, who’s in Wednesday’s eighth, saying that a friend had asked him to ask McLaughlin about him (and I swear that it wasn’t I). McLaughlin briefly discussed the colt’s surgeries and praised assistant Andrew St. Lawrence’s work in getting Saratoga Russell ready for his comeback at Monmouth.

Borel was asked frequently about Rachel Alexandra and continued to extol her ability. He also talked about his love for horses. “They’re my passion. I can get up and feel awful, and when I get to the barn and see the horses, I feel great. I love my horses.” When asked how his life has changed with his recent successes, he laughed and said, “It’s gotten easier! And I get to ride better horses.”

McLaughlin continued to draw laughs when he responded to a question about who determines a horse’s running style. “If he wins, the trainer did it. If he loses, the jockey did it.” He went on to say that frequently, it’s the horse who determines the style and that race variables can call for split-second decisions about whether to stick to the plan or adjust. Borel noted that you have to take what the horses give you, go out and have fun, and read the race as it’s going on.

When asked the inevitable question about synthetic surfaces, McLaughlin said that he liked training on it because of the consistency of the schedule; he doesn’t miss training time because of bad weather. He was emphatic in his opposition to racing on it, given the unpredictability of how the track will play and the difficulty of handicapping it as a trainer. Borel was more succinct: “I hate it.” There’s no point in buying a Daily Racing Form, he said, because a horse’s past performances might have no bearing in a race on a synthetic surface. “I can see why the public don’t want to bet on it.”

An audience member observed that based on published work times, it seemed that the Oklahoma track had gotten faster; McLaughlin acknowledged that in response to trainer concerns about tendon injuries, the track was a little tighter. Campo said that two renovation breaks are scheduled to water the track, which would make it run a little faster.

Hayward was asked about takeout and was as unequivocal as he was last year: “20% take out is usurious and irresponsible on the part of the government.” He noted that high takeout is “killing the sport” and that VLT operators know that takeout higher than 9% is impossible in their business, while the state takes 20% from racing.

Given Borel’s switching from Mine That Bird to Rachel Alexandra for the Preakness, a question was asked about how jockeys make choices about mounts. McLaughlin, who was Chris Antley’s agent for a year and a half, talked about jockey Alan Garcia’s relationship with his barn, and said that Borel’s decision was an easy one for an agent: he’d ridden the filly before and Woolley wouldn’t be offering a lot of other opportunities.

He also told a great anecdote about the 1992 Spa meet. Antley had been the regular rider for Turnback the Alarm, winning the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks with her; he also rode another talented three-year-old filly, piloting Allen Jerkens’s November Snow to victory in the Test. When both horses were pointed to the Alabama, Antley stuck with Turnback the Alarm, leading Jerkens to book Craig Perret for November Snow. Training for the Alabama, November Snow was injured, sending McLaughlin the agent to Jerkens, who told him that he’d already booked another jockey. The way McLaughlin tells it, he wheedled the Chief: “Come on, Antley wants to ride your horse, you want to ride him…” Result: Antley rode November Snow, the filly won the Alabama, and, according to McLaughlin, owner Earle Mack paid out two $12,000 jockeys’ fees: one to Antley, one to Perret.

When asked why stewards aren’t responsible for publishing reports on their decisions, Hayward responded, “I ask that question myself. It’s outrageous.” He explained that one steward comes from NYRA, one from the Jockey Club, and one from the State Racing and Wagering Board. He said that he’s asked them repeatedly to write brief statements about their decisions, invoking the racing laws that govern them. He has been overruled by the state, which reportedly is concerned about the effects of a written report on any possible litigation over a decision.

The evening ended with Hayward expressing optimism/hope that the recent embarrassing behavior by the state government in Albany will spur our representatives to make a VLT decision soon so that slots revenue can begin “some time in 2010.” It was an appropriately hopeful, if likely fanciful, perspective to close an evening on which hundreds of people came out, eagerly anticipating this year’s racing season, more than willing to be hopeful and fanciful in a way that is part of the magic of the Saratoga meet.

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