Six of the nine races carded for Friday’s opening-day program at Belmont Park are scheduled for the dirt.
Pat Pope hopes some day this will not be an anomaly.
This fall, Pope begins his tenure as the racing secretary for Belmont Park. Since 1995, Pope, 62, has been – and will continue to be – the racing secretary at Oaklawn Park, which offers only dirt racing during its meet. In New York, over the years, there has been a gradual shift to a more turf-oriented program, due in part to the dearth of dirt horses and to the fact turf racing typically draws more horses.
Over the last five Belmont fall meets, average field size in turf races has been 1.62 to 2.09 horses higher per race than on dirt.
“I’m hoping that eventually we get to where we can bring some more dirt horses to the area, certainly want to do that,” Pope said in a recent interview. “I’d like to make sure the dirt races we do use we get another [horse] or two.”
Pope understands increasing field size in dirt races or the number of dirt races run at a particular meet will not occur swiftly. He is hoping to use his relationships with Midwest-based horsemen to send dirt horses to Belmont perhaps as early as next spring.
“It’s also a process of trying to get more people to come from more Midwestern circuits besides the dirt horses we have on the East Coast,” Pope said.
Earlier this year, Pope was named racing secretary for Belmont Park while Mike Lakow will handle those duties for Aqueduct and Saratoga. Martin Panza, senior director of racing operations for NYRA, has been handling those duties for close to a year. He will now be able to focus on other big-picture issues including workers’ compensation insurance, premiums for which have skyrocketed and have been a deterrent for out-of-state horsemen to run here.
Panza said NYRA is constantly looking at ways to increase or at least stabilize field size in dirt racing.
The Belmont Park fall meet begins Friday and runs 36 days through Oct. 28. After two three-day race-weeks, racing will be conducted five days a week (Wednesdays through Sundays). First post will be 1:30 p.m. on most days, the exceptions being the final five Saturdays of the meet (Sept. 29, Oct. 6, 13, 20, and 27) when first post will be 12:30 p.m.
Belmont will host 44 stakes worth more than $10.2 million during the meet. Seven of the graded stakes offer fees-paid berths into their respective Breeders’ Cup categories topped by the Grade 1 $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, one of three Grade 1 races scheduled for Sept. 29. The winner earns a spot in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Other Breeders’ Cup qualifying races that day are the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (Turf) and the Vosburgh (Sprint).
The Oct. 6 card is highlighted by the Grade 1 Champagne, which offers a fees-paid berth into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Non-Breeders’ Cup qualifying races on that card include the Beldame, Belmont Turf Sprint, and Hill Prince.
The Oct. 7 card has three Breeders’ Cup qualifying races topped by the Grade 1 Flower Bowl (Filly-Mare Turf) and Grade 1 Frizette (Juvenile Fillies), as well as the Futurity, which will now run be on turf and offer a berth into the Nov. 2 Juvenile Turf Sprint, the newest Breeders’ Cup race.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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