NYRA unveils its first new twist
That’s a Patton Oswalt comedy bit based on a wholly unsubstantiated rumor, but the New York Racing Association’s announcement on Friday reminded me of Megaleg.
The premise of the bit is a KFC menu item developed by chemists and food testers at some secret lab in Louisville, Ky. It’s a chicken leg . . . but the size of a turkey leg.
I’m not trying to make fun of NYRA here.
They’re under the gun to break even without casino revenue, they’ve hired a well-respected, innovative senior vice president of racing operations, Martin Panza, and CEO and president Chris Kay called 2014 “the year of experimentation.”
That said, I’m not thrilled with the move by NYRA to shift their great Memorial Day stakes lineup, highlighted by the Met Mile, from May 24 to June 7, to be absorbed by what will now be a bloated Belmont Stakes weekend.
This could work for NYRA from a straight bottom-line standpoint — handle will be astronomical — as well as an image standpoint with unquantifiable value. They have to explore ways to enhance the brand. As Panza, who has been thinking through this power play since he was hired in November, said during a teleconference, “I think it’ll have a Breeders’ Cup feel to it.”
At what cost, though?
And where/when will the next “Megaleg” be wrought? Saratoga?
Personally, I love Met Mile Day, even though Memorial Day family events prevent me from actually being at the track.
I love Belmont Day, too, and never leave Belmont Park less than sated by what traditionally is a great card whether there’s a Triple Crown on the line or not.
With all the shuffling, NYRA is trumpeting the nationally televised 10-stakes Belmont Day as “the second-richest day in North American racing with $8 million in purses.”
That was accomplished by pumping up some purses and moving the Met Mile (a purse increase from $750,000 to $1.25 million), Ogden Phipps and Acorn from Memorial Day, and moving the Brooklyn and Jaipur from Belmont Friday to Saturday.
The Friday stakes now will be the True North, which was moved from Saturday, and the new $200,000 Belmont Gold Cup, a two-mile turf race that Panza hopes will attract some international competition.
Racing on Sunday has been resurrected to fill out the weekend and will have a $100,000 turf stakes for fillies and mares called the Intercontinental.
“Big days are what we all look forward to,” Panza said. “For casual fans, you hope it makes a difference and gets them to come out an extra time during the year. For core fans, it gives them quality races that are more fun to handicap and bet on. The whole big-day concept is something I believe in and hope to do more of in the future.”
“We wanted to create a day that grabs people’s attention in the classic, bigger-than-life New York style by shining a spotlight on Belmont Park and the superiority of the quality of New York racing,” Kay said.
This will amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul if the gains made on Belmont Day don’t balance what is lost on Memorial Day.
Oh, by the way, admission prices just went up on Belmont Day, too. Way up, although we won’t know by exactly how much until next month.
Kay said they wanted to “build a day that is comparable to the Breeders’ Cup in many respects and prices that are comparable to what Pimlico does for the Preakness and Churchill Downs does for the Kentucky Derby.”
Last year, general admission prices for Belmont Day were $10 grandstand and $20 clubhouse. It was $25 for the Preakness and $50 for the Derby.
Seats on Belmont Day, according to last year’s application, were $45-$120. Preakness seats were $150 on average, and for the Derby you had to buy a two-day package for an average of $350.
Attendance is something NYRA, naturally, wants to bolster and maintain as much as possible, but handle is what drives the engine, and crowd figures have stagnated on the big days, even the Belmont, which is always subject to the whim of Triple Crown potential.
It’s no fun to see less than 10,000 in that gigantic place on Jockey Club Gold Cup Day.
“We want 70, 80, 90 thousand people even if we don’t have a Triple Crown,” Kay said. “And if we do have one, so much the better.”
“For the people who wait until the Preakness to decide, they might say, ‘I’m going to the Belmont regardless,’ ” Panza said.
Perhaps this is apples and oranges, but, while New York continues to provide the best and most lucrative racing in North America, turning Belmont Day into “Megaleg” seems like a move toward what Churchill Downs has become. It’s a place that markets the bejeesus out of the Derby, cashes in big, then shows signs of neglect on the rest of the calendar.
Asked about Travers Day, Kay said, “We haven’t gotten to Travers Day yet.”
Speaking of the Travers, last year’s winner, Will Take Charge, makes his 4-year-old debut Sunday as the 9-5 morning-line favorite in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park.
He wrapped up the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award with a win over Game On Dude in the Clark in November, after having finished second to Mucho Macho Man in the BC Classic.
The field of 11 also includes Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, who was third in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont last year.
Coincidentally, Game On Dude, ninth in the BC Classic, is also in action this weekend, on the other coast.
He’s the 3-5 favorite in the San Antonio at Santa Anita today.
The Chicago Blackhawks are idle today, which should give coach Joel Quenneville the opportunity to keep an eye on the undefeated Derby prospect that he co-owns, Midnight Hawk.
The Sham winner is the 9-5 favorite in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita.