Horse racing is a dying sport or so, at least, goes one sort of conventional wisdom, in the face of declining foal crops, handle, field size, and crowds. Fifty years ago, more than 50,000 people went to Aqueduct on the 4th of July weekend to watch the historic Suburban Handicap, in which Iron Peg defeated Kelso, a two-time winner of the race who was named Horse of the Year for five consecutive years, 1960 – 1964, an unprecedented accomplishment and one that will never be repeated.
The Suburban is still run on the holiday weekend, though now at Belmont Park, and it’s been a while since a horse of Kelso’s stature ran in it—though it’s also true that it’s been a while since a horse of Kelso’s stature ran anywhere.
It’s also been a while since 50,000 people came out to see the Suburban; last year, a shade over 5,000 turned out. Various reasons are offered for why people don’t go to the race anymore: you don’t have to go to the races to the bet; other types of gambling are more attractive; people have more entertainment options; horse racing is tinged with overtones of cheating and medication abuse.
Earlier this year, the New York Racing Association’s president and CEO Chris Kay and senior vice-president of racing operations Martin Panza announced the first of several changes to the racing schedule, creating “big event” days by concentrating major stakes and prize money on fewer days in order to attract bigger crowds and more gambling dollars. The first of these was the day of the Belmont Stakes, which offered more than $8 million in purses and which more than 100,000 attended, drawn by the prospect of California Chrome winning the first Triple Crown since 1978.
The second big event day for New York Racing was last Saturday. Billed as “Stars and Stripes Day,” the day was anchored by the Belmont Oaks Invitational and Belmont Derby Invitational, Grade I races on the turf that had formerly been run during Belmont’s fall meet under different names (the Garden City and Jamaica respectively), to which more than two dozen invitations had been offered to horses from around the world.
“We want to see,” said Panza, “how we stack up against international horses, on our home field.”
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