They'll give away $150,000 in the Schuylerville Stakes on opening day at Saratoga and the race has a rich history and a who's who list of winners that includes Hall of Famers Cicada, Ashado and La Prevoyante and stars like Numbered Account and Meadow Star. But neither the history nor the purse proved to be very inspiring when trainers made their scheduling decisions. Only five entered the race and one, Mast Cove, is coming off a win in a $30,000 maiden claimer at Delaware Park. The race has been carded as the third on the day so that a weak betting event doesn't spoil the more popular multi-race wagers.
Not that any of this should come as a surprise. Be it in New York, Del Mar in Southern California or anywhere else, there is no harder sell than an early season 2-year-old race. Nobody wants to run in them. Not only do most modern trainers try to run their horses as infrequently possible, but with 2-year-olds the only race they seem to care about is the Breeders' Cup and they know, these days, they can get there off one race, a maiden win.
The early 2-year-old stakes on the NYRA calendar typically draw small fields and are won by horses that will never be heard from again. The last five editions of the Schuylerville, including last year's dead-heat, were won by Brazen Persuasion, Bahnah, So Many Ways, Georgie's Angel, Li Mi Geaux and Hot Dixie Chick.
NYRA has tried various incentives to get trainers to start running their 2-year-olds earlier and none have worked. The result is a broken system where historic races are becoming insignificant and good money is being paid out to mediocre horses who take advantage of even less talented rivals.
The last five winners of the Stanford, the first stakes of the meet for 2-year-old males, are every bit as unspectacular. They are Wired Bryan, Bern Identity, Overdriven, Maybesomemaybenot and Backtalk. The Sanford is a race won by Tom Fool, Secretariat, Affirmed and Forty Niner. It's also the race in which Upset beat Man o'War.
NYRA has tried various incentives to get trainers to start running their 2-year-olds earlier and none have worked. The result is a broken system where historic races are becoming insignificant and good money is being paid out to mediocre horses who take advantage of even less talented 2-year-old rivals.
One solution is to simply give up. Saratoga doesn't need and can't support six open juvenile stakes on the dirt, three for colts and three for fillies. It would make more sense to have the Hopeful and Spinaway, two races run toward the end of the meet, kick off the 2-year-old stakes season. Do away with the earlier stakes, save money and replace with them with a couple of allowance races.
Another solution is to turn the 2-year-old stakes season upside down. Pay the big money early and de-emphasize the later races on the calendar. Make the Champagne and Frizette $150,000 races. As they are positioned as key Breeders' Cup preps, people will likely run their good horses in them even at that reduced level. Take the savings, fiddle around with a few other races and make the Hopeful and Spinaway $1 million each. That will get the 2-year-olds out of their barns.
If you can put up $2.25 million total for two races for 3-year-old grass horses at the Belmont spring meet surely you have the money to make the premier 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga worth $1 million each.
Last call for Tom Durkin
When Saratoga opens Friday it will be the beginning of the end of Tom Durkin's announcing career. He will call his last race at Saratoga on Aug. 31, the day before the meet ends, and then enter into retirement. Durkin has been the Secretariat of race callers and no one can hope to bring to the microphone the color, the wit, the flare and the accuracy he's provided New York racing fans since 1990. He was more than just an announcer. He is a personality.
There's been little word on who will be handed the difficult task of replacing Durkin. Two top candidates have to be John Imbriale and John Dooley. Either one would be an excellent choice.
Imbriale has been Durkin's able backup for years and is a fine announcer in his own right. Since he's already retired once from NYRA before being brought back, he may not be a long-term solution. But that doesn't mean that he can't man the announcer's booth for a couple of years.
Dooley, the announcer at Arlington and Fair Grounds, is native of Staten Island, has called races in New York in the past and has developed into one of the better announcers in the sport. He's a perfect fit for the job.