New York winter racing was never a good idea. A racing franchise that had always stood for unparalleled excellence in the industry sullied its image and brand in 1975 when it began winter racing, which amounts to bad horses running for good money in dismal conditions.
But this is the year it has hit rock bottom.
Monday's card at Aqueduct was the 11th cancellation in 2015, plus another card was scrapped after two races were run. The biggest news of the meet has not been who won the Withers or Jerome or how many winners the Ortiz brothers have had but how many horses have died racing over the winter track. Fourteen horses have been euthanized thus far this winter.
Perhaps these numbers are outliers. Or maybe they're not.
During the winter of 2011-2012 thirty horses died at Aqueduct. Those sorts of numbers never occur at Belmont, Saratoga or during the spring and fall, main track meets at Aqueduct. Perhaps there's something wrong with the inner track. Or maybe trainers are encouraged to push the envelope because they know a win at Aqueduct in the winter can mean a huge payday for a horse with zero ability. Whatever the reason, far too many horses have been dying in the winter and it can no longer be looked upon as a coincidence or mere run of bad luck.
As for the weather and the cancellations, get used to it. Climate change is likely going to mean brutal winters will be the norm and not the exception.
And even on days when things do go right, when the weather is bearable and all the horses and jockeys get around the racetrack safely, what do you really have? The fields are small and the quality of racing can be Finger Lakes-esque. There is a serious horse shortage going on and NYRA cannot possibly hope to field full, quality cards with 49, 50 weeks of racing, much of it on a five-day-a-week-basis especially when the horse population takes a serious hit in the winter when the majority of the top stables head to Florida.
The facility is dilapidated and has zero charm. The handful of fans who do attend sit there and watch bad horses run for huge purses. The Sport of Kings this is not.
Martin Panza has done so much good work pumping life into Belmont and Saratoga, with creative concepts like the Stars and Stripes Day and turning Belmont Stakes Day into a card that rivals the Breeders' Cup. But there's nothing he or anyone else can do to turn the winter at Aqueduct into anything more than a joyless three or four months that can't end soon enough.
The answer is to return to the good old days prior to 1975 when New York racing shut down around Thanksgiving weekend and didn't re-open until mid-March. That would breathe so much life into the New York racing product. The fans and the horses would be fresh and eager to go in the spring and no one would ever again be forced to sit through a race where the favorite, going for $26,000, runs 28 Beyer numbers. And it would drastically cut down on the number of horse deaths at the New York tracks.
As with so many things in horse racing, getting rid of winter racing in New York is one of those things that can help the sport but will likely never happen. There are several impediments in the way and NYRA management cannot simply wave a magic wand and make it go away.
Under New York law, Aqueduct must run 120 days a year and there are other regulations that require a large percentage of those dates must be held during the winter. But these are state laws and the state essentially runs NYRA. The law can be changed and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been outspoken about how horrible it is every time a horse dies at Aqueduct, should be the one leading the charge to change things.
If he did he'd likely be told by the pro-winter racing forces that Aqueduct helps pay for the big purses at Saratoga and at Belmont. There was a time when this was true. Because the purses are lower at Aqueduct than they are at the other two NYRA tracks and the betting on the Big A is still rather robust, NYRA actually comes out of the winter meet with extra purse money that can be utilized to help bump up purses at Saratoga or help create events like Star and Stripes Day.
But that's an argument out of the past. First, slot revenue funnels so much money into purses that they're going to be huge at all three NYRA tracks no matter what. Secondly, when NYRA doesn't run it actually makes money. With its own ADW and with the core of people who will come to Aqueduct and Belmont to play the races even when the local card is canceled, NYRA's going to pocket a good $200,000 on such days from importing simulcasting signals. In fact, now that NYRA makes its financials public at its Board meetings, all you need is a pencil, a calculator and some patience to figure out the economics of their operation. Should they shut down in the winter it appears that, thanks to their simulcast business/ADW business, they'd actually be able to stock away even more money for the rest of the year than if they ran.
The only people who would be hurt by the end of winter racing would be the horsemen that stick it out in New York in the winter months. But it's not like they wouldn't have other opportunities to run at Parx or Laurel or to send their better horses to Florida. And this is one of those situations where the good of the sport and the New York Racing Association should come before the needs of an individual group of trainers.
You can't look at this winter and conclude anything other than it was a disaster. And you can't logically argue that things will get any better in winters to come. It's time. Winter racing in New York has to go.