SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The 2019 Saratoga meet was marked by significant gains on the track and significant losses off of it.
The extended Saratoga summer – in which 40 days were scheduled and 39 were actually run over eight weeks – proved a box office success. All-sources handle was a Saratoga record $705,343,949, eclipsing the previous mark of $679,798,120 set in 2017. It was also an increase of 7 percent from the 2018 Saratoga all-sources handle of 659,083,459.
Ontrack handle was $146,618,388, down 1.5 percent from last year’s figure of $148,826,388. Total attendance was 1,056,053 down from last year’s figure of 1,124,149 and the lowest in five years. There was one less day of racing this year.
Saratoga was able to set a record for handle despite the cancellation of a Saturday card (July 20) and the loss of the last seven races of an 11-race card on July 25 when heavy rains made the main track and turf courses unusable.
For the first time, racing at Saratoga was conducted five days a week as opposed to six days a week. With the exception of the Labor Day card, Mondays – and Tuesdays – were dark this summer.
Average field size for the 403 races run over 39 days at this meet was 7.90 horses per race, up over 7.75 last year when 404 races were run over 40 days. This year, there were 179 races run on the turf with 34 transferred to the main track due to weather. Last year, there were 159 races run on the turf, with 50 rained off to the main track.
“The five-day meet worked well for the racing product,” said NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke, who oversaw his first Saratoga meet in that role. “The conversations we’ve had with the town, indications are everything’s gone well downtown. I will be back up here at the beginning of October to sit down with the [Chamber of Commerce] to go through the hard data and get a good feel for how the new schedule worked.”
O’Rourke will also discuss whether to alter the dark days to Tuesday and Wednesday and return Monday as a racing day. That decision will most likely be made based on feedback from the Saratoga business community.
“Initially it seemed like the businesses downtown were all for that, I’m not sure at this point,” O’Rourke said. “We’ll have a better answer about that in October. There is something to be said for consistency, do something over several years, people get used to it. The intellectual side of me would love to test it, but I want to take a look and see what they have to tell me.”
O’Rourke does not seem keen on expanding the meet beyond 40 days, though the calendar next year would suggest that it could be done. Labor Day is Sept. 7 and moving racing from Belmont to Saratoga on July 9 – after its July Fourth Stars and Stripes card – could make for a 45-day meet.
“There is no indication we would do anything like that at this point,” O’Rourke said. “We’ve been asked about it, but we haven’t discussed it in any planning meetings.”
In addition to some high-quality racing, there were other factors that led to Saratoga’s record-setting meet. The late pick-five wager was open to all bettors this year as opposed to restricted to those who played ontrack, in-state, or who had a NYRA Bets advance deposit wagering account. That resulted in $21,749,642 being wagered on the late pick five, compared to $7,173,781 at last year’s meet.
On Aug. 7, NYRA replaced its traditional $2 pick six with a 20-cent wager known as the Empire 6. Over the last 21 days of the meet, handle on that wager was $14,062,317 – including $5,379,910 on Monday. There was $7,404,722 wagered on the traditional pick six over the last 21 days of the 2018 meet.
“I thought it was really well received,” O’Rourke said. “It was one of those few things where you model something on paper and it played out like you modeled it.”
The Empire 6 will continue when racing moves to Belmont on Friday.
Chad Brown won his third trainer’s title with 41 wins. He won 13 stakes, four of which were Grade 1’s including his first Alabama with Dunbar Road. Todd Pletcher finished second with 21 wins followed by Steve Asmussen (15), Jeremiah Englehart (14), Christophe Clement (13) and Jason Servis (13).
“Very happy with the meet,” Brown said. “Once again, many of the horses showed up and my staff did an unbelievable job, which I’m so appreciative of. They deserve to have the success that they’ve had, they earned it. Of course, my owners supplied us with the right horses that fit here.”
One of those owners was Seth Klarman, whose Klaravich Stables won a meet-best 17 races. Some of those horses Klarman owned in partnership with Bill Lawrence including Grade 1 Sword Dancer winner Annals of Time. Finishing behind Klaravich were Michael Dubb (12), Three Diamonds Farm (6), Mike Repole (6) and Madaket Stables (5) and Gary Barber (5).
Jose Ortiz won his third Saratoga title in the last four years, winning 60 races, the last coming in Monday’s Grade 1 Hopeful. Behind him were his brother Irad (53), Javier Castellano (39), Joel Rosario (37), and Luis Saez (36).
Off the track, New York racing lost two pillars of the industry. Marylou Whitney, an owner, breeder and philanthropist died on July 19 at the age of 93.
Carmen Barrera, NYRA’s head of horsemen’s relations for the last several decades, died unexpectedly on Aug. 8 at the age of 60.
There were five racing-related equine fatalities at the meet, the last one coming in Monday’s last race when Borough Boy broke down in the stretch.
There were some superlative performances turned in at the meet, with the most jaw-dropping effort turned in by Shancelot, who won the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes by 12 lengths earning a 121 Beyer Speed Figure. He was upset by Mind Control, last year’s Hopeful winner, in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens.
That performance came one day after Imperial Hint won the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt in a track-record time of 1:07.92. It was a meet where track records fell at an inordinate clip. The Mellon Turf Course record for 5 1/2 furlongs was eclipsed by Leinstar (1:00.23) on Aug. 3 and the lowered two weeks later by Carotari (1:00.21).
Got Stormy set an inner turf course record for a mile (1:32.00), winning the Grade 1 Fourstardave against males one week after beating fillies in the listed De La Rose Stakes.
The race of the meet may have been the Grade 1 Personal Ensign when Midnight Bisou caught Elate in the final strides to improve her record to 6 for 6 this year.
Code of Honor gave Shug McGaughey his fourth Travers victory.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.