Saratoga stretches out

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The racing season here may be brief, but this is a town with a passion for horses that spans the calendar. Racing drives the economy and most other things in Saratoga, which after a winter and spring of communal anxiety is now being prepared -- and not without a degree of trepidation -- for the longest race meeting staged since 1882 at the nation's oldest racetrack.

Since the New York state government's temporary salving of New York Racing Association's financial wounds, after which there was a shared civic exhaling, the length of the meeting at hand in uncertain times has become the dominant topic among the citizens of the Spa City, where change is often viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism.

The timing might not be right for extending the Saratoga season. The industry's current trend leans heavily toward the reduction of racing dates. Downward breeding and ownership spirals, progressive products of the persistent global economic malaise and the sport's contraction have finally been manifest at the races. Fewer horses making fewer starts can lead to only one inevitable result.

Less has become significantly more at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, the first state to deal intelligently with an industry in decline. The resulting elevated purse structure on the Jersey Shore made possible by casino subsidies, a weekend-only schedule and the elimination of thoroughbred racing at the Meadowlands has been felt at Belmont Park and will continue to affect the product at Saratoga. Racing schedules have been reduced in Kentucky, and Hollywood Park has twice canceled cards because of insufficient entries. Del Mar, suffering like all California tracks from the combination of a reduction in the horse population writ large by its isolation, will offer fewer races this summer. But at Saratoga, the wounded economy and stark reality be damned -- "more than ever" is the theme of 2010.

The NYRA will stage 40 days of racing at the Spa, beginning on July 23 and concluding on Labor Day. The 24-day meeting during an era when the NYRA billed Saratoga as "the August place to be" is but a fond memory more than two decades gone. The four-week meeting became five, then six, and now is just short of seven -- six days a week with 10 races on most days.

There is a tipping point out there somewhere if not a point of no return. Once an aura is blemished, it is stained indelibly. Tamper at great peril with the exclusivity of Saratoga, and the perception that winning here is something to be savored beyond winning almost anywhere else. When the rubber meets the road, a $15,000 maiden claiming here is no different from anywhere else.

An elite population of horses and a high level of competition became unsustainable some time ago. When this meeting was at its best, the lowest level of claiming race was $25,000, and no selling race was offered for state-breds or maidens. The theme then was quality over quantity at Saratoga, where every night was Friday night, every day was Saturday and cheap horses were left downstate. The prestige of winning at Saratoga still supports the perception of importance, and the stakes schedule continues to draw the best of breed. But the overall quality of horses racing here has waned in recent years, and there is no reason to believe that trend will not continue or, indeed, worsen.

In recent years, the condition book in New York has become a laughable squandering of paper. A daily supply of "extra" races -- dozens per week -- is the basis of assembling the daily racing cards. That practice is most egregious during the Saratoga meeting, when pressure to produce large fields is increased exponentially. The result: an inordinate number of turf sprints for low-level horses and the dilution of the overall product to a shadow of what was once the standard of excellence.

Certainly, the economic climate will encourage more than a few New York trainers to maintain a presence at Monmouth, where reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, although stabled at Saratoga, will race on this meeting's first Saturday. Such a decision would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, when the summertime traffic from New Jersey was initially northbound. The purse structure at Monmouth and the seat-of-the pants racing operation at NYRA is not lost on others based in Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic who in other years would send their best horses to Saratoga but may now be represented by lesser numbers.

There is more at work here than an extra four days of racing and the questionable timing of expansion in the face of a diminished horse population and increased competition. Never has what is widely considered the pre-eminent race meeting in North America faced so many uncertainties at a time when pleasant surprises and serendipitous outcomes are few and far between.

If more than ever is the theme of Saratoga 2010, the question is: More of what?

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.