Making NYRA's best day even better

February, 10, 2014

The Breeders' Cup may not be headed to New York in the near future, but the Big Apple will soon be home to an event tailored to evoke comparisons with Thoroughbred racing's world championships.

Only it's in the springtime.

New York Racing Association officials announced Friday a plan to make Belmont Stakes Day as entertaining as the Breeders' Cup by packaging 10 stakes on the blockbuster card -- including one of New York's Top 10 stakes of the year, the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap -- and offering a combined $8 million in purse money during the 13-race program.

The enhanced June 7 card will now be the North America's second richest day of racing, trailing only Breeders' Cup Saturday and surpassing the opening day Friday program at the Breeders' Cup.

New York's a big city, and by taking its best day and making it better NYRA is clearly reaching for a big chunk of attention by making what seems destined to be its best business decision since the state takeover in 2012.

We want to give people a reason to come out to the races. Guests who come that day will be treated to a full day of top-quality racing.

-- Chris Kay, NYRA President & CEO
"We wanted to create a day that will grab people's attention," said Chris Kay, NYRA's CEO and President. "We want to give people a reason to come out to the races. Guests who come that day will be treated to a full day of top-quality racing."

While the main focus of attention is Belmont Stakes Day, the truly Super Saturday is the cornerstone of what NYRA sees a three-day festival of racing in Elmont, N.Y.

Stakes were also revamped on Friday's card and Sunday, which had been a dark day in recent years, will offer a new stakes.

Entertainment and enhanced hospitality options for the three-day period will also be added at a later date. Ticket prices are also in flux, but given other recent price increases at NYRA tracks it would not be surprising to see them jump.

The face lift, which will pump an additional $4.75 million of purse money into the Belmont Stakes Day card as opposed to 2013, involves the return of five stakes from last year -- the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, the $1 million Manhattan, the $750,000 Longines Just a Game, the $500,000 Woody Stephens and the $150,000 Easy Goer -- and five newcomers.

The $1,250,000 Met Mile, NYRA's traditional Memorial Day feature, received a $500,000 boost in purse money and is the headliner among the new faces. The $1 million Ogden Phipps , which was worth just $400,000 last year and is a race NYRA would love to see as a battleground for the outstanding fillies Beholder and Princess of Sylmar, the $750,000 Acorn for 3-year-old fillies, the $500,000 Brooklyn Invitational and the $300,000 Jaipur Invitational have also been moved to the star-studded Belmont Stakes Day card.

The Brooklyn will also offer a $175,000 bonus to its winner, provided the horse has previously won a graded stakes at a mile and three-sixteenth or longer. The hope there is that the bonus might encourage a horse like Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man or BC Classic runner-up and Travers winner Will Take Charge join the festivities.

It's unquestionably a dazzling showcase for racing, yet it might also be overkill -- if the Belmont has a Triple Crown sweep on the line.

With a horse bidding to become the 12th Triple Crown champion, Belmont Park has attracted crowds as large as 120,139, as it did in 2004 when Smarty Jones fell short in his attempt at a sweep. With a crowd that large, it's hard to imagine the presence of the Met Mile or Ogden Phipps having much of an impact on the crowd size.

Where the changes should have the greatest impact is on those years when the Triple Crown bid ends in the Preakness, like it has in each year since Big Brown's flop in 2008.

Attendance last year, when Kentucky Derby winner Orb went down to a demoralizing loss in the Preakness, was a disappointing 47,562.

"A lot of the casual fans wait to see who wins the Preakness before they decide on coming to the Belmont," said Martin Panza, NYRA's Vice President of Racing Operations. "We want to create a day that will make people in February or June want to come to the Belmont."

We want to create a day that will make people in February or June want to come to the Belmont.

-- Martin Panza, NYRA VP of Racing Operations
The weekend package starts Friday with a pair of stakes, the $250,000 True North, a sprint, and the newly created $200,000 Belmont Gold Cup, a two-mile grass stakes that might appeal to foreigners.

Sunday's card will be topped by another new stakes, the $100,000 Intercontinental , a turf sprint for fillies, which makes it the least appealing of the three days. The Intercontinental is not exactly the kind of enticement that figures to coax out-of-towners to spend an extra day in the Big Apple. From that standpoint, the Met Mile might have been a better option for the role of a Sunday headliner.

There is a precedent for offering a Grade 1 stakes on the day after the Belmont as 1991 NYRA hit a home run when it had the Mother Goose in that spot and the race turned out to be the famous "Mother of All Gooses," with Meadow Star and Lite Light engaging in an epic duel.

Some nit-picking aside -- such as the impact on Memorial Day attendance without the Met Mile -- the glamorizing of the Belmont Stakes Day card falls in line with other changes recently implemented by NYRA.

Some have been ill-advised. Raising admission prices at Belmont Park and Saratoga and testing the response to Monday racing by instituting a confusing winter schedule that changes from month-to-month were not the best of ideas.

Turning Belmont Stakes Day into a mid-year Breeders' Cup, however, has all the makings of a very wise decision.

"We view 2014 as a year of experimentation and this is part of it," Kay said. "We're trying different things to give people a great experience when they come to our tracks."

On June 7, anyway, that "great experience" seems like a sure thing.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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