A Requiem for a Different Saratoga Meet

Every once in a while, maybe every few years, I go out to dinner and have a weird internal dialogue with my subconscious. The last time I can remember this happening before Monday night was the week of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. In addition to being the lone social media person for TVG at the time, the company was rebranding HRTV into TVG2, which meant redesigning what was then HRTV.com to fit the new brand, all while staying on top of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during one of the four busiest weeks of the year.

That Thursday, I came into work at 6 a.m. and watched the sun rise on one side of the Howard Hughes Center. I left at about 8 p.m. after watching it set on the other side, and the first place of repute open on my way back to my then-apartment in Pasadena was a Denny’s in Culver City. I was running on fumes at that point, and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out during that weekend’s TVG Extra broadcast (visions of overtime money danced in my head!).

My present-day corner of the world has a dimly lit dive bar next door. It’s called Vinnie’s, and after two long days of work Sunday and Monday, I wound up there as a local band was doing a sound check for a 10 p.m. set. The food isn’t fantastic, but it’s solid, cheap, and, most importantly to me on this particular evening, someone other than me was preparing it.

The best way I can describe Vinnie’s is this: Picture Sister Margaret’s, the bar in the “Deadpool” movies. It’s dark, to the point of being gloomy, and there’s sometimes strange stuff going on (on this particular evening, several people were shooting dice on the bar and sending the same $1 bill back and forth). It’s popular with bikers, but not the ones you need to be afraid of (think of the One-Eyed Snakes from “Bob’s Burgers,” in that they look menacing but are mostly harmless).

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I thought this was a horse racing column.” I’m getting there. The reason I was so winded tonight is because the 2018 Saratoga meet has come to a close after 40 cards of racing in upstate New York. It took me a little while to realize it, but I wound up at Vinnie’s for a reason. It’s a different kind of place, and this year’s Saratoga stand was a different sort of meet.

Sure, at its peak, it had the great racing Saratoga is known for. The meet hosted slam-dunk Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl, who cruised to victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Top sprinter Imperial Hint ran roughshod over the field in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. Fast-rising Marley’s Freedom galloped home much the best in the Grade 1 Ballerina for Red Jacket honoree Bob Baffert. Fans saw Saratoga County native Chad Brown set a single-season record for wins by a trainer, and were treated to a rousing rendition of the Travers, which found a way to stand out even without Triple Crown winner Justify (thanks, Catholic Boy).

There were certainly highlights, ones Saratoga produces every single year, and by the numbers, the track saw its second-highest all-sources handle in history. However, there were some bumps along the way. The first 20 days of the meet saw nearly 10 inches of rain drench the Saratoga area, and 50 races were rained off the turf. From a handicapping perspective, that often meant having to look at races twice, just in case the skies happened to open up.

There was also the infamous race run at the wrong distance. When Somelikeithotbrown waltzed home to break his maiden, it was going a mile and an eighth, not the race’s intended route of a mile and a sixteenth. Additionally, there were a few late scratches of horses entered as parts of entries, which meant that the remaining horses in those entries ran for purse money only and were not eligible betting interests. The worst-case scenario in that instance happened in one day’s opener, when half of a Joe Sharp-trained entry was ruled out and the other half won as much the best. Bettors who liked that part of the entry and bet accordingly got nothing for having a correct opinion, which is a situation that must be avoided at all possible times.

For me, this meet was weird in other ways, too. I started writing for The Saratogian in 2012, and stayed on as a seasonal freelancer after leaving for California in late-2013. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes at the newspaper. My two primary supervisors, managing editor Barbara Lombardo and sports editor Kevin Moran, took buyouts in 2015. David Johnson, who assumed Kevin’s post after his departure, left following the 2017 meet. This summer, the paper’s full-time sports staff consisted of two people: Editor Joe Boyle, whose primary job was to produce regular sports sections for both The Saratogian and The Troy Record, and Stan Hudy, who took the lead on producing The Pink Sheet. Compare that with the staff I walked into in 2012, which boasted a sports editor (Kevin), several full-time reporters (myself, David, Stan, Alex Ventre, and eventually Mike Cignoli), a few freelancers (Jeff Scott, who still contributes, and the great Mike Veitch, who retired last year), two clerks (Chris Maley and Tyler Michaud), and a dedicated sports paginator/copy editor (first Matt Donato, and then Ryan Hayner).

Even with a full staff, producing two sections a day for seven weeks is not easy (DRF colleague and former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo can back me up on that!). The realities of journalism are such that editors and reporters must do more with less on a constant basis. Joe and Stan put forth herculean efforts to get the paper(s) out as scheduled, and while I thanked Stan in my final bankroll blurb of the season, it’s worth doing so again here, in an area where I’ve got a bit more room to express myself. Thanks, Stan. Hopefully, I never held anything up!

From a handicapping standpoint, the meet was its own kind of difficult. Saratoga is always hard. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that three wins per day is an admirable pace, and that 120 winners (three a day for 40 days) will yield a solid placing amongst other handicappers of that ilk. When I somehow came out on top amongst all print handicappers in 2017, I did so with 128 top-pick winners. John Shapazian, who won the crown this year, had 123. As I recall, one or two others were in the 115-120 range.

This year, Shapazian had 116 winners. Liam Durbin, who regained the Pink Sheet title, had 109. I had 108, and as far as I can tell, that was good for a clear third (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are incredibly low numbers compared to the ones that are usually needed to win, but that’s how hard this year’s meet was.

Put in other ways, consider a few of these facts: Talented but little-known trainers Chuck Lawrence, Gary Contessa, and Greg Sacco all won more Grade 1 races (one apiece) than longtime Saratoga maestro/future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher (zero). Mark Casse, one of North America’s most respected horsemen, suffered through an ugly 0 for 48 streak at the Spa that ended when Fly Away Birdie came running late in the Labor Day opener. Gary Sciacca saw Casse’s streak and raised it 21 more, to 0 for 69 (special thanks to DRF’s David Grening for his note on the specific number). He hadn’t won a race at the Spa since 2016, but the drought ended when Sicilia Mike romped in Monday’s seventh race. Paraphrasing an Andy Serling remark from early in the meet, you’re nobody until you get crushed at Saratoga, and this year, the bakeries making humble pie did incredible business.

I look forward to Saratoga every year. I grew up going there every summer, getting autographs from jockeys, listening to Tom Durkin, and learning how to read the publication I’d eventually work for. There are changes every summer. More people I’ve rubbed shoulders with leave the business, for one reason or another. Durkin retired after the 2014 meet. Many people that populated the press box in 2012 and 2013 no longer work for those employers, and a few, unfortunately, have passed away (Paul Moran, Mike Jarboe, Matt Graves, and John Mazzie are all missed). We’re already preparing for one additional change that’s coming sooner rather than later, as longtime NYRA bugler Sam Grossman’s last day of work came and went Monday afternoon.

Saratoga provides a rush to be able to test my skills against other handicappers (for my money, some of the best ones around). As an incredibly competitive person drawn to horse racing not by fashion or Instagram photos, but by the very nature of pari-mutuel wagering (my money against yours), that’s always been something I value. Having said that, it’s also an incredible honor to produce content others can use as a tool to make some money, and that’s the primary reason I love doing what I’m privileged to do for seven weeks out of the year.

Personally, there are years where the Saratoga meet means something bigger. 2013’s meet was my way of burying myself in work to keep my mind off of other things in my life. 2017’s meet was about me proving several high-level doubters dead wrong, and I remain proud to say that that’s what I did (you can blame those doubters for me going into wrestling promo mode at times over the past year; if you find me, ask and I’ll tell you the story).

This summer wasn’t quite like that. It was an endurance test, handicapping’s version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where hitting the wire brought with it its own special sense of relief (and, for a privileged few, some sense of accomplishment). It was a summer where a lot of creatures, both human and equine, had to navigate around situations that were far from ideal. To those that did: Congratulations. You made it.

God willing, I’ll see you all next year. I’ve got a title to get back!

THE DARK DAY FILES: Lessons from a Day Trip to Lake Tahoe

On my day off Monday, I drove three hours each way to watch horse racing on television.

Before anyone calls me an idiot (in some cases, again), I suppose I should explain. You see, I had casino loyalty points that were going to expire in mid-September, and rather than start from scratch, I opted to make my maiden voyage from my home in northern California to Lake Tahoe.

I make a few trips every year to Las Vegas, and there are some similarities between the journeys to the two Nevada locales. When I lived in Los Angeles, it took between three and a half and four hours to get to Sin City by car, and it’s a similar-length drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. Additionally, there are agricultural inspection stops on both trips back that do nothing but inconvenience roughly 97% of motorists passing through.

However, that’s about where the similarities end. First, the drive from LA to Vegas is best known as a kind of competition. Everyone has a time they’re trying to beat (my personal best from Pasadena to a Vegas hotel is 3 hours, 32 minutes, and that’s without driving recklessly or hitting traffic), and everyone has a small town along the way they prefer to stop in for gas, food, or bathroom breaks (mine is Baker, which boasts a population of 735 people and, more importantly, an Arby’s).

The drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe is anything but a competition. The last road one takes to get there is Route 50, which is mostly a two-lane road with intermittent passing lanes scattered about on the trek through the Eldorado National Forest. In other words, the trip could take anywhere from two and a half hours if you don’t hit traffic to four hours if you’re unlucky enough to follow huge trucks down that road with a peloton of your closest friends also in pursuit. I got there in three hours with a quick stop in Folsom (not at the prison), and the trip home took four with a dinner break in Vacaville.

Having said that, though, if you’re traveling during the day, you probably don’t want to hurry. Route 50 is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the United States, and there are several improvised spots to pull over for photographs. Once you wind your way through the forest, you come out in the rare kind of ski village that also thrives during the summer.

Of course, if you’re in the neighborhood to gamble, that’s prominently catered to as well. In fact, once you weave through the village and get to the state line, two casinos greet you. Harrah’s is on one side of the street, Harvey’s is on the other, and they sit literally inches beyond the California/Nevada border.

As one can expect, both places weren’t exactly bustling with activity at 9:15 on a Monday morning. As the day went on, though, I noticed a theme. Unlike Las Vegas, which thrives on providing sensory overload at all times, Lake Tahoe provides a relaxing environment that struck me as incredibly refreshing. The race book was quiet, with jovial tellers and wait staff. The casino floor had outgoing dealers, and each table had open seats and low minimums. Las Vegas is a wonderful place, but between the crowds and the elevated minimums at busy times, there are some circumstances that give gamblers major headaches.

Those didn’t exist Monday in Lake Tahoe. Instead, what I saw were fun atmospheres with people having a great time. Horse racing types, take note: Gamblers don’t necessarily mind losing if external factors provide some bang for their buck. It wasn’t Vegas, but it didn’t have to be.

I spent most of the day in the race book at Harvey’s, and for the last two races on Saratoga’s Monday program, I spent time chatting with a group of maybe five or six people. We all wound up on the same horse in the finale, first-time starter Surge of Pride. The Linda Rice trainee won on debut at odds of 7/2, and we were all pretty fired up as we headed to the windows (which, by the way, boasted no lines the entire day) to cash our winning tickets.

To tie all of this together: I’ve used this space a lot over the past few months to advocate for fan education, which I believe makes for a more attractive gambling product. Fans that feel comfortable with the product bet more, and they’re much more likely to recommend what they do to friends who are curious. Judging by what I see on Twitter on a daily basis, we have a large portion of the racing fan base that would not recommend the sport to those close to them, and that’s a problem that must be fixed (Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, are you listening?).

It’s great to provide all sorts of data to fans and handicappers, and if that leads to betting action, then a large part of the mission has been accomplished. That’s a large part of what I do for a living, and I hope I’m doing a decent job of that. However, what also works is to provide an atmosphere people feel comfortable in. We can produce that in really simple ways. We can fix timing issues that should not exist in 2018, both with the scheduling of races at different tracks and the times of those races themselves. We can test proposed rule changes by asking if novices would understand explanations of said changes made in 15 seconds or less. We can find ways to legitimately grow the game by marketing to the people who keep it going with steady action, as opposed to those who come to the track once or twice a year and don’t put money through the windows.

Nevada, of course, also has legalized sports betting, and that’s the elephant in the room. When sports betting becomes widely legalized, we need to present the best wagering product imaginable in order to stay competitive. There are steps we can take right now that aren’t huge ones. It’s my hope that we take them, improve the gambling atmosphere in this sport, and give horse racing an improved foundation moving forward.

THE DARK DAY FILES: The Importance of Student Journalism, and Those That Don’t Recognize It

Before becoming The Pink Sheet’s in-house handicapper, I was a multimedia sports journalist for a year and a half with The Saratogian, the main paper that produces it. It was actually my first full-time job following two years interning at Siena College’s athletic communications office, and it provided me with one heck of an entry point to the real world of journalism (and media production as a whole).

I got to do a lot of cool things, and not just at Saratoga Race Course (though using the press box as an office for seven weeks during the summer definitely topped the list of perks the job offered). I interviewed professional athletes like Jimmer Fredette and Kyle Busch, but primarily, I got knee-deep in high school and college sports, where I built relationships with coaches, student-athletes, parents, and administrators. Those are the moments I remember the most, from improvising a press box in my car when lacrosse was played in sub-freezing temperatures to having to get said car towed out of a makeshift parking lot when it sunk into mud during a baseball doubleheader.

Most of the time, my interactions with members of the community were cordial, even pleasant. However, there were times where it was necessary to take hard looks at certain situations. The men’s soccer program at the local Division III college had a hazing scandal that led to 24 players being disciplined and its spring season being cancelled. The main local high school in town had an incident with its boys basketball coach, and loudly took exception when one of our writers covered a baseball game where a player made four errors (you can read about that story here; it’s as absurd as it sounds). Additionally, racing fans may appreciate that I once fielded a few angry calls from a steeplechase trainer and his top assistant when I mistakenly reported a horse had been vanned off due to an error in the official chart that was corrected after my article went to press (if Richard Valentine and Laird George happen to be reading this, sorry again).

My point is simple: Journalism isn’t public relations. It’s about fulfilling responsibilities to communities that depend on your outlet for information as to what’s going on, good or bad. It’s not a responsibility to take lightly, nor one that should be burdened by people who are easily bent to the wills of the people or organizations they’re tasked to write about.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this in what’s supposed to be a racing column. That’s a very fair question. I was fully prepared to write about Justify, Accelerate, and the race for this year’s Eclipse Awards. However, when I looked at Twitter after spending my day off in San Francisco eating a strawberry crepe and garlic fries (possibly the first time in the history of humanity that this combination has been ordered), I was horrified to see news out of Liberty University, an institution that, per Teddy Amenabar of The Washington Post, has taken drastic steps to shape their student-run newspaper.

First, the obvious disclaimers: Liberty University is a private institution that is well within its rights to do this. There are no constitutional or legal issues in play here, so do not fall into the trap of saying such measures violate the First Amendment.

Having said that, discouraging aspiring journalists from undertaking actual journalism is entirely the wrong course of action to take. What the school’s dean of communications is saying is that the school intends to use its newspaper as a public relations device. PR is not journalism, and it will never be journalism.

Journalism covers the things people deserve to know about, not what those in power necessarily want us to see or hear. In a perfect world, serious journalists hold everyone accountable. It’s not a profession undertaken by the meek. Journalists work long hours, wear many hats, and are often ridiculously underpaid for the work they do. They don’t do the job because they’re beholden to people or groups they cover. They do it because serious journalism is worth saving, even in an age when newspapers and other outlets are struggling mightily.

The young men and women that want to be journalists have already shown toughness by choosing that career path. They don’t want to create puff pieces that are easily digestible. They want to go the extra mile, do the dirty work, and tell the stories that need to be told. That these stories don’t line up with the ones Liberty University wants publicized is unfortunate for those in power, and any attempts to get students to conform to the desires of higher-ups are scary, at best.

Perhaps what’s weirdest about this is that the dean of communications doesn’t realize that quality student journalism is, in fact, the best form of public relations his institution could ever receive. I went to Ithaca College, whose student-run newspaper (The Ithacan) was often very critical of the school’s administration. It wins awards on an annual basis, and it’s trumpeted as an example of the Park School of Communications’ devotion to training young professionals who exit ready to make an impact in their chosen professions. Those in power don’t try to suppress the voices of its student journalists. They give those students platforms to find their voices, and that stance is a large part of why I’m proud to be an Ithaca College alumnus.

If you’ve read this far, chances are this story has hit you in a similar way it hit me. This is where I need your help. If you’re a communications professional, share what’s happening. If you’re a faculty or staff member at an institution of higher learning, and your administration is holding students back from doing what they want to do, say or do something about it. Your students want to be better journalists. Do everything you can to give them that opportunity.

Liberty isn’t the first school to do this, and chances are they won’t be the last. There are students out there whose voices are being suppressed for no good reason, and I want to do something about it. I’ll always be a journalist regardless of anything else I’m fortunate enough to do, and I feel a responsibility to make sure the field is as strong as it can be in the years to come.

If what’s happening at Liberty is common, I want to fight it. I want to give the suppressed students a chance to work around restrictions that should not exist. I don’t know what this would take, how this would work, or even what this would look like. All I know is that this is the right thing to do, one that I’d hope someone would do for me if I had wound up in a place not as receptive to the idea of a free press.

If you’re out there, and this speaks to you in some way, tell me. Click this link to use the contact feature available at this website to reach me. I read every single piece of correspondence that comes in, and I want to know how I can best help out some people that need it.

THE DARK DAY FILES: How Can We Appropriately Honor Fourstardave?

Saturday’s feature at Saratoga was the Grade 1 Fourstardave. Named for one of the most beloved horses in recent Saratoga history, the race was won by another local favorite, Voodoo Song. Voodoo Song was previously best known for winning four times at the 2017 Saratoga meet, and this quickly inspired some in racing to compare the two horses.

I like Voodoo Song. He’s a cool horse and a great story, having risen from the claiming ranks to become one of the better turf horses in the eastern part of the United States. In a sport that desperately needs cool stories, his is a cool story. However, comparing him to Fourstardave does the latter a great disservice.

Records in sports are made to be broken. They’re how we measure greats of varying eras, and there are some that, try as competitors might, will likely never be approached. For example, we’ll never see a pitcher throw three no-hitters in a row and break Johnny Vander Meer’s mark of two, and we’ll never see an NBA player go for 100 points in a game, like Wilt Chamberlain once did.

All of this leads up to this one indisputable fact: Fourstardave holds the most unbreakable record in horse racing. No horse will ever win a race at eight consecutive Saratoga meets, and horses outlined on the hood of Ferraris will drive them before one of their fellow equines wins one at nine in a row. Shoot, the only horses with careers that long nowadays are converted steeplechasers, and those races are probably even harder to win than ones on the flat!

From 1987 through 1994, Fourstardave made at least one appearance every summer in the Saratoga winner’s circle. He was never a top-tier thoroughbred. He was never beating the likes of contemporaries such as two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Lure, and an argument can be made that he wasn’t even the most accomplished offspring of sire Compliance and dam Broadway Joan (full brother Fourstars Allstar won the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas). That lack of high-profile form is probably why, the further you get from upstate New York, the less people you find that fondly remember Fourstardave.

What he did have, though, was longevity unmatched by any horse that ever summered at the Spa. As a comparison point, let’s look at Wise Dan, the latest model of the “hard-knocking, hard-trying, ornery gelding” that the racing gods molded out of clay and gave to us for our betting and viewing pleasure. During his Hall of Fame career (and yes, Wise Dan bashers, he’s a Hall of Famer), he won a race at Saratoga in three straight seasons. He was in training for a 2015 return before he was officially retired.

Had Wise Dan won that season’s Fourstardave, it would have given him four straight years with a win at Saratoga. This is nothing to sneeze at, and would look great on a plaque across town at the Hall of Fame. However, and let this resonate…such a total would have only put him halfway to Fourstardave’s lofty total.

Unless scientists find ways to turn horses into indestructible robots, no top-tier horse will run long enough to even get halfway to Fourstardave’s record. It’s simply a different sport now, and horses that appear at four or five Saratoga meets are getting harder and harder to come by.

As the years roll on, Fourstardave’s accomplishments should be growing in magnitude because of that fact. However, it seems as though the opposite is happening, at least in some circles. While he was given an edible key to the city of Saratoga Springs upon his retirement, and even paraded inside local hot spot Siro’s, Saratoga’s Hoofprints Walk of Fame (in principle, a very good idea) does not have a spot for him as of yet.

Former Saratogian colleague Mike Veitch (one of the smartest, kindest men I’ve ever known) is on the selection committee. He and I have had a few conversations about Fourstardave’s credentials over the years, and from those, the information I’ve been given is that his resume does not have enough wins over top-tier competition for the committee’s liking.

This is a fair, accurate assessment of his body of work. As I’ve mentioned, Fourstardave wasn’t close to the top horse of his era. Having said that, if the purpose of the Hoofprints Walk of Fame is, as stated online in a recent NYRA release, to honor the most prolific and notable horses to compete at the track, how can one justify Fourstardave’s exclusion? It is physically impossible for any horse to be as prolific as Fourstardave was from 1987 to 1994. His wins spanned three Presidents, for crying out loud! And notable? The track the Hoofprints Walk of Fame sits outside of has a Grade 1 race named in his honor, and one of the side streets near the backyard bears his name, too.

If the purpose of the Hoofprints Walk of Fame is to honor prolific and notable horses, there is not a justification for Fourstardave’s exclusion. For the sake of this conversation, I don’t think it matters that he couldn’t beat the likes of Lure (to be fair, many others couldn’t, either). Over the course of his career, he accomplished something much, much greater. He gave fans a horse to follow and root for, one that wasn’t immediately retired at the first sign of trouble or handled with kid gloves because the connections couldn’t stand the thought of losing. We need more horses like that, and we need to appropriately honor the ones that have come and gone.

I don’t know if my voice carries to Saratoga from my little one-bedroom apartment in northern California. I’d like to think that it carries at least a few ounces of weight, and it’s my hope that the Hoofprints committee gives Fourstardave his due next summer.

THE DARK DAY FILES: Entries, Purse Money Only, and Lots of Preventable Headaches

I have a rule of thumb at the racetrack, and it’s a simple one: If you have an opinion on a horse, and you bet it, and you’re right, you should be rewarded for it.

This sounds like a given, and it should be. However, the events leading up to Sunday’s first race at Saratoga turned this concept on its ear.

Here’s what happened, in as few words as I can muster: One of two coupled Joe Sharp trainees scratched at the gate. By New York law, the other half of the entry was forced to run for purse money only, and no wagers would be taken on the horse. That horse won as much the best, but for wagering purposes, the runner-up was declared the “winner.”

The aforementioned law, as it’s been explained to me, is on the books as an attempt to protect bettors. However, let me ask this question: If you’re a gambler, and you were betting the entry because of the horse that ran (as opposed to the horse that scratched), exactly how are you being protected? The only thing that’s protected, in this case, is the cash residing on the track’s end of the betting windows, as they’re refunding your wager rather than paying out a win.

This isn’t just an issue with straight, one-race bets. There have been issues with this in multi-race wagers, as well. The one that stands out to me came a few summers ago at Saratoga. I spread pretty deep in a Pick Four that included a 2-year-old race, and one of the betting interests I used was an entry trained by Edward Barker. Before the race, a part of the entry named Yorkiepoo Princess (who went on to win three stakes races) scratched, leaving just stablemate Kissin Cassie to run for purse money only.

You can guess where this is going. Kissin Cassie won by two lengths (she was about 8-1 or so when her stablemate scratched), and the horse that ran second was a 33-1 shot I did not have on my tickets (nor did pretty much anyone else, judging by the eventual payoffs). I was right to use the entry. The connections of the entry celebrated a victory. Those who bet the entry, however, were left with no profits to show for their astute handicapping.

Explain the concept of, “being right to bet a horse to win, but not winning,” to a novice horse racing fan, and the fan’s head might explode. It should never happen, yet it happens several times a year on the NYRA circuit. These are the simple things we need to clean up if racing is to survive once sports betting becomes widely legalized. If I bet the Michigan Wolverines to beat Notre Dame, and they beat Notre Dame, I expect to collect money. The same principle should apply to horse racing, and it’s not rocket science to think that.

I understand why multi-horse entries exist. Having said that, it’s entirely possible the concept has outlived its usefulness. Southern California does not have entries, and as a result, the circuit does not have this problem. Furthermore, since horse racing’s top level is being populated by fewer and fewer trainers, there are races where entries do not serve their intended purpose.

As an example of this statement, I submit Saratoga’s third race from the August 2nd program. It was a maiden special weight event for turf horses, and Chad Brown had three entrants. Two were coupled (#1 Business Cycle, a main-track-only runner who scratched, and #1A Frontier Market). A third, #3 Hizeem, was not part of the entry, which defies the very principle of entries. If entries exist to protect the public by coupling horses that share owners and/or trainers, why was one Chad Brown trainee not coupled with the other two? This holds especially true since one of the runners would only run if the race was rained off the turf, and in that circumstance, it’s highly likely that at least one of the other Chad Brown-trained runners would scratch. With that in mind, a three-horse entry would have been very improbable and should not have been seen as a bad thing.

The procedures here seem inconsistent to me, and it doesn’t pass the test of being able to explain the concept to a casual fan in less than 15 seconds. If I’m a fan, and I have a discretionary amount of money with which to bet, why would I want to spend all of this time trying to understand principles that don’t make sense? In much less time than it would take to wrap my head around these concepts, I can look up a game preview, read 300 words on the participants, and have enough substance to formulate wagering opinions on that contest.

I believe that we’d be smart to treat every issue this game has with fan education and retention at the forefront. I am not a, “THE SKY IS FALLING!,” type who believes every little issue could be the downfall of horse racing. In fact, my views are far from that. I earnestly believe there are a lot of people in the sport that genuinely want it to succeed and prosper in an age where gambling, in theory, will have less of a stigma attached to it. However, when the sports betting folks get their ducks in a row, and when that provides real competition to horse racing, we’d better be ready with a customer-friendly product that attracts people and keeps them coming back.

There are big problems the sport has that will take a lot of thought to solve. Those will all need time, unity, and, in some cases, short-term sacrifices to fix. However, there are problems we can deal with right away with very little effort that will make it easier to attract and keep new fans, and this is one of them.

In lieu of a better solution (and if someone has one, I’m all ears), NYRA and other organizations that still have multi-horse entries should treat each horse as a separate betting interest. The rules that are on the books are not working as intended, and they’re costing players money rather than ensuring they’re protected. Changes to these procedures and policies would be to the benefit of everyone involved, and they would prevent issues like the ones that arose Sunday at Saratoga from happening again.