Urbanities

James MacGuire
Reform New York Racing? A Saratoga Perspective
Autumn 1991

This year’s Saratoga meeting began in classic racing fashion. The first person I ran into at the track turned out to be the brother of a friend recently lost at sea. Knowing that the two of them had not been close in recent years, I simply said, “I’m so sorry.” He responded glumly, “Yeah, and he went off the favorite, and not only did he never run, he hurt himself in the stretch, so we may have to send him back down to the farm ... oh, you mean my brother?”

So it goes at Saratoga, racing’s capital and the closest thing upstate New York has to Mardi Gras. With the Saratoga season expanded from four to five weeks this year, the old track far outdrew the more modern but oh-so-soulless downstate racing plants, and there was enough drama to go around for an entire year. An aging Angel Cordero electrified the crowd on the first Friday of the meet when his saddle slipped as his horse bolted from the gate and he lost his leg irons but continued to bounce down the backstretch on the lead. At the top of the lane he even managed to whip his charge once in a valiant but ultimately futile effort to win the race. On the basis of that performance, when his race-riding days are over he might well turn to rodeo. A good-looking Phone Trick colt named Caller ID almost completed the rare triple of winning the three two-year-old stakes, but after getting home first in the Saratoga Special and the Sanford he was trounced in the Hopeful by the fast-breaking Salt Lake. The Jim Dandy stakes was the first of many upsets, justifying anew Saratoga’s longtime sobriquet, “The Graveyard of Favorites.” Fly So Free roared down the stretch to beat Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold. On the filly front, Cynthia Phipps’s Versailles Treaty upset Aurora in the Test stakes on the first Saturday and came back to win the Alabama in the mud after the heavily favored Meadow Star scratched. And in the Travers, the “Midsummer Derby,” the country’s oldest stakes race, William T. Young’s Corporate Report upset Hansel, Strike the Gold, Fly So Free, and Lost Mountain to gain the winner’s share of the $1 million purse. He paid 7 to 1 and completely clouded the year’s three-year-old picture, which will now have to wait until the Breeder’s Cup for a champion to emerge.

The racing business is in a bad way, and Saratoga racing is as much a tonic for horse folk as its famous waters are for those seeking cures at the spa. The yearling sales showed just how badly things are going in the industry. Prices were down a full 40 percent from last year. At track vet Don Cook’s fish fry, any number of able trainers—Richie O’Connell, Dick DeStasio, Bobby Reinacher—complained about not having enough horses to fill their stalls. And everywhere in the backstretch, veteran trainers like Phil Johnson and Scotty Schulhoffer complained about not having enough races for the horses they did have. The overall quality of racing stock on New York tracks has declined, and half the Thoroughbred farms in the Blue Grass are said to be for sale.

Racing horses has never made economic sense, but the sport is supported by a loyal cadre of horse owners, whose aggregate annual loss before the 1987 change in federal income tax rules was $24 million. The new tax laws have made things even harder. Costs have risen sharply while disposable income is down. In the last five years, attendance at tracks has fallen an average of 16 percent nationwide. Total betting handles are also declining: by 3 percent in 1990, with a devastating 10 percent decline forecast for 1991.

But the Saratoga social scene swam along despite the hard times. Albany author William Kennedy, Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, and 88-year-old Hall of Fame trainer Horatio Luro were among thousands on the scene each day. Mrs. Walter Jeffords served speckled trout to John McEnroe’s mother at her North Broadway house, Wellington Mara went AWOL from Giants training camp to bet a double or two, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady found time to fly up from Washington to watch a couple of days’ races.

There were parties everywhere. At Molly Wilmot’s benefit for the New York City Ballet, Heather Watts smoked and Peter Martins sipped, and the unsinkable Molly looked on admiringly. “They smoke and drink more than I do, but they’re so young and they have such good bodies. So much more fun than that racing crowd—’The Cemetery Club,’ I call them.” And while Molly was feeling jealous of the younger generation of dancers, Saratoga’s undisputed queen was admiring Molly’s ever-youthful figure. “I hate her for being so thin,” Mary Lou Whitney moaned. “I mean, how do you hide the boobs? “

At Saratoga the big questions have always counted. A week later in the meeting, Mary Lou had her annual soiree at the Canfield Casino. Three hundred of the Cemetery Club swarmed in at her bidding, dressed in costumes suggested by Guys and Dolls, to gamble for charity at tables manned by members of the Saratoga Elks. “I’m not giving my party this year,” another Palm Beach heiress was heard lamenting that night, “I’m not up to it.” To which came the sympathetic retort, “It doesn’t matter. Nobody came anymore, anyway.”

Far from the playgrounds of the quality folk, Saratoga lost two of its nobler mainstays over the winter. Rozier Cohen Johnston, who had handled the binocular stand since 1919, died last spring, and Pappy, a disabled jazz drummer and sometime shoeshine boy, succumbed to cancer in early July. They were missed. During the excitement of Travers Day, I suddenly realized that it was exactly ten years ago that I had wandered into the press box and seen a diminutive, florid-faced man sipping a vodka and tonic, surrounded by his admirers, the hard-bitten denizens of the Fourth Estate. It was Red Smith’s last visit to Saratoga. He saw Willow Hour win that day. For the fifty years previous he had seen most of the other good ones and the men and women who worked with them. “I love it,” he said on a 60 Minutes interview not long before he died. “It’s one of the greatest athletic contests in the world, and I don’t think there’s a greater collection of characters anywhere than on the backside of a race track.” He made them come alive:

At lunch Max Hirsch said “no thank you” to the waiter with a tray full of martinis. “I’m running a horse this afternoon. If I drank one of them I’d probably bet on him.”

One of Smith’s favorite stories was Alfred Vanderbilt’s on names:

It isn’t easy getting names approved by the Jockey Club. Take my mare Pansy. I just name her foals for the sire and ignore the dam. She produced a foal by Shut Out, so we called him Social Outcast, and another by Questionnaire that we called Query.

Why do as many as fifty thousand people flock to the venerable wooden Saratoga Racetrack, standing among great elms in the Adirondack foothills? They come because it is beautiful and has a perfect atmosphere for an upstate summer outing. They come because of its history as a place where Indians and settlers gathered to taste the springs and bathe in the healing waters, and where the guerrilla warfare tactics of General Horatio Gates repulsed the British Army and turned the tide of the Revolution. They come to see a city of gingerbread Victorian homes built around the century’s turn. But they come most of all for racing.

A day in Saratoga begins at dawn, watching the horses work out on the main track or on Oklahoma, the training track. At 8 A.M., when the main track is harrowed and training stops for 45 minutes, horsemen congregate at the Reading Room, the track, or a local restaurant for a breakfast that cannot be called complete unless it includes one of the succulent, locally grown Hand melons, a delicious hybrid which, happily, ripens in mid-August.

Later in the morning there is ample opportunity for tennis, golf, shopping, or the baths. The races begin at 1 P.M. and last until 5:30 or 6. Afterwards there is a swirl of cocktail parties and good restaurants to choose from. And although the elegant casinos (in one of which an aunt of mine is reputed to have thrown her mink stole down on the roulette table and proclaimed, “Put that on red”) are long gone, without undue effort one can still last out on the town until just before dawn, when Hatty’s Chicken Shack on Phila Street will supply you with a cup of strong coffee before you head out to the track to start all over again.

“People love Saratoga,” second-generation trainer Leroy Jolley likes to say, “because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Now that the meeting has been extended, however, and rumors abound that it will add another week in 1993, not everyone is sure it really does have an end. But that’s OK too.

My father inherited from his father a disapproval of children at the racetrack, but around my fourteenth year the call came forth from Saratoga, and I was soon ensconced on an Adirondack Trailways bus heading northward to join my parents. Seated next to me was an elderly Jewish gentleman impeccably dressed in a seersucker suit and a straw boater. We struck up a conversation, and I told him I was making my first visit to Saratoga. He sighed and said, “How I wish I was making my first visit to Saratoga. I’ve been going for over fifty years.” I asked him if he had known my great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant who early in the century used the proceeds from his food business to begin a modest stable. My companion frowned. I liked his groceries better than his horses,” he groaned and went back to studying his Morning Telegraph.

I should have taken such Weltschmerz to heart, but unfortunately the next day I hit the double for $106 (my father, not wanting me to be disappointed when his pick for the second race failed to come in, offered to buy the ticket out for $40, whereupon two touts at the next table turned on him and hissed, “Too much!”) and have been hooked ever since.

With the founding of the American Jockey Club in 1866, New York became the center of American racing, consistently offering the highest purses and attracting the best runners. Saratoga emerged as the racing capital each August in the early 1860s and has never been challenged. In 1866 Leonard Jerome, the American grandfather of Winston Churchill, purchased the old Bathgate estate in Westchester County and built a European-style course, which he called Jerome Park. In the following years racing in the metropolitan region proliferated, and racetracks were built at Monmouth (1870), Brighton Beach (1879), Sheepshead Bay (1880), Gravesend (1886), elegant Morris Park in the east Bronx (1889), and the original Aqueduct (1894), with its popular “grandstand as might be seen at a country fair.” Would that the architect of the present Aqueduct had embraced the same aesthetic!

With the dawn of the twentieth century, Jamaica Racetrack opened in 1903, Belmont Park in 1905, and Empire City (today’s Yonkers Raceway) in 1907. All of these tracks were privately owned, and some of them were highly profitable enterprises. Parimutuel betting was introduced in 1940 and soon replaced the often colorful institution of legal, on-track bookies. Handles soared, and with them, revenues to the state.

The war effort curtailed racing drastically between 1941 and 1945, but afterwards racing boomed anew. The state’s racing facilities were aging, however (as is again the case today), and it became clear that the only way to replace them was through the creation of a new state racing structure. Convinced that private capital could not accomplish the necessary ends under the prevailing tax structure, the Jockey Club proposed the formation of a nonprofit, quasi-public racing association to take over Belmont, Jamaica, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. Whereas from today’s perspective a strong argument could be made for reprivatization, at the time the Jockey Club solution was regarded as innovative, and most people involved in the sport believed it was the only way forward.

Following upon the proposal of the Jockey Club study commission, the New York Racing Association (NYRA), a parastatal agency, was formed in 1954 and bought out the stock of the surviving privately held tracks. It then consolidated racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga and began a program to build new facilities at the first two while upgrading the ancient premises of the third. Enormous plants capable of holding up to sixty thousand fans were constructed at Aqueduct (1959) and Belmont (1965). On good days, that many came out and cheered the exploits of the legendary Kelso, Ridan, Damascus, and other great horses of the era. The sport was established and secure, second only to baseball in the public’s heart. New York had the finest racing in the land. The future looked bright.

But during the Sixties, while other professional sports—notably pro football—developed sophisticated marketing and promotion programs and greatly multiplied their audiences through the shrewd use of TV, racing seemed almost to disdain its fans. The plutocracy that controlled the sport in New York was unresponsive to changing times, and racing’s market share began to wane.

Then in 1971, disaster struck. Off-track betting (OTB), which had been resisted for years, was legalized. The Old Guard believed that racing was a sport first and a gambling opportunity second: If the public wanted to participate in the sport, the proper place to do that was at the races. In the most grievous miscalculation in its history, when NYRA was offered the opportunity to run OTB, it refused. So New York State’s curious OTB structure was formed, with six separate, autonomous corporations in different regions of the state, each with its own duplicative management structure, overseeing off-track wagering. By common consent it has been an administrative and fiscal disaster.

The arrival of OTB meant the cannibalization of what had been NYRA’s exclusive franchise. Despite such superstars as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Alydar, and Affirmed, on-track attendance plummeted during the Seventies and has never been restored. OTB’s own operation has been deplorable. Enter a New York City OTB parlor and one is assaulted by dirt, stench, and rudeness. OTB’s operation has become one of the most flagrant patronage plums in the state (not an inconsiderable distinction). Furthermore, faced with a declining share of the gambling dollar as lotteries and casino gambling have thrived, OTB has been anything but competitive. It maintains prohibitive “take-outs” reaching 24 percent of each dollar bet, and a punitive “surcharge” on winning bets, both of which drive gamblers away.

Through its resolute mismanagement, OTB, where 60 percent of all money wagered on racing in New York is now bet, has put its franchise into deep jeopardy. Last year New York City OTB gave the city and state only $33 million in revenues out of $959 million bet, down from a profit of $65 million on just $780 million wagered in 1977. State Comptroller Edward Regan estimates that New York City OTB will begin running at a deficit approaching $1 million this year unless immediate emergency action is taken. The New York City government may be the only institution in the free world that could run a book, without even having to pay off the cops, and still lose money. Is Johnny Gotti laughing at us?

For all its shortcomings, racing in New York still packs a sizable wallop. When last measured by Peat Marwick, the industry poured a total of $1.4 billion in direct and indirect expenditures into the state economy, including $173 million in revenue to state and local governments. More than 12,000 jobs were generated by the industry. When jobs at New York State horse farms are factored in, the number climbs to close to forty thousand. Thoroughbred racing is the most widely attended professional sport in the state.

Nonetheless, the slippage is clear. We need fundamental changes in the structure and marketing of horse racing in New York State.

The first of these is to consolidate OTB and NYRA. Under direct government control, OTB has predictably turned into a patronage machine and a nightmare of bureaucratic waste. NYRA, although quasi-public, is essentially free of direct political control and is run by real racing people. It would almost certainly do a better job.

Moreover, folding OTB into NYRA would be a natural first step in giving New York racing a rational economic structure. Successfully managed professional sports succeed largely because they control, and manage well, the broadcast rights to their events. We should start thinking of off-track betting as the racing equivalent of broadcast rights. By giving NYRA the right to exploit these rights, we can ensure New York State racing the revenues it needs to thrive. The state’s coffers would benefit as well, since with the right incentives in place NYRA might get a lot more creative in how it markets racing on or off the track.

Racing must work hard to expand its audience. At the moment racing is available only to those who come to the track or bet at one or another unpleasant OTB shop, few of which even offer a live signal race on closed-circuit TV. The future of racing lies in part in modern, well-appointed “teletracks” that could show racing to fans who gather for a night out in urban or suburban locations, much as they would at a restaurant or bowling alley. It also lies (and NYRA has made good progress in developing this area) in more innovative “simulcasting” of NYRA races to its and other major tracks around the country, Las Vegas casinos, and betting locations in foreign countries such as Mexico, Bermuda, and England. Ladbroke’s has invested heavily in the United States in anticipation of such a trend. While such electronic emporia could drive down the number of national racetracks, they would greatly increase total handle and, accordingly, state revenues.

The future of New York racing may also lie in a limited experiment now being managed by the best of the OTB presidents, Dave Etkin of the Capital Region OTB Corporation. He has temporarily been given permission to pipe live harness races via cable television from the Saratoga Raceway into the homes of Albany subscribers, who can use telephone accounts to bet from their living rooms. Etkin has seen his handle rise 45 percent over the course of the experiment. The sooner such a system can be installed for both Thoroughbred and harness racing on a permanent basis statewide the better, and the better the chances will be for New York racing in the coming contest for a national horse-racing cable television channel and audience.

With the racing world thus transformed, there would be even less reason for obsolete mega-facilities like Aqueduct to continue in their present user-unfriendly condition. These tracks were built to accommodate huge crowds before off-track betting was legalized. But the reason people come to the races, especially when those so inclined can just as easily stay at home and watch on the tube, is to enjoy the sight, sound, smell, feel, and fun of a great athletic contest. At Aqueduct, Belmont, and the Meadowlands, one is so far removed from that spectacle that he might just as well be watching on TV. (The majority of people at these monolithic racetracks do watch the races on TV.) By contrast, more intimate tracks, which preserve the feel of racing’s glorious past and continuing contact with country life—Keeneland in Kentucky, Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and Saratoga best of all—have in the past two decades consistently outdrawn facilities with double or triple their capacities.

The best solution, therefore, would be to put the races on TV and as many other different distribution networks as possible. Then the racetracks could be downsized, so that going to the track would once again be a pleasurable sporting experience. Don’t move Aqueduct, just tear half of it down, and make the other half halfway comfortable. Put the crowd closer to the races at Belmont. The Saratoga season could be extended even further, from July Fourth to Labor Day. Other potential major racing venues should be explored to take advantage of the northern New York City, Westchester, and Connecticut markets now so badly served by the two Long Island tracks. Finger Lakes, outside of Rochester, should be bought at a sensible price (the owners say they want to sell, but at the moment their asking price is absurd) and used to promote the New York Breeding Program. Occasional meetings on the English model could be mounted in such lovely locations as Chattaqua or the Catskills.

In addition to all these changes, Albany must make the decision to take less so as to get more. Under the current formula, out of every dollar wagered, the state government reserves five cents for itself (the rest of the take-out provides the tracks with operating capital, contributes to the New York State Breeders’ Fund, and in the case of OTB’s surcharge, provides monies to local government). This is a ruinously high levy which, in the face of mounting competition, the state can no longer afford to exact. Maryland has now cut its levy to 0.5 percent, and the result has been the resurgence of a dormant racing industry. So did New Jersey, a much stronger competitor right next door. Racing statistician Joe Finnegan makes a convincing case that such a decrease would ultimately benefit the state in increased revenues from higher handles.

Racing on cable TV and telephonic betting, state-of-the-art teletracks, amenable tracks, revamped and expanded OTB outlets, a rational management structure, and lower state levies could all combine to double or even triple the overall racing handle.

And that is only in-state. If New York racing would market its product nationally and internationally, it could generate ten times the revenues it produces today, assuring better racing, more jobs, and, dear to the heart of an otherwise indifferent Albany, direct revenues to the state and localities approaching $2 billion annually.

For too long people associated with New York racing have been content to complain but do nothing, or to pass off the state’s racing problems—whether OTB’s miserable performance or the negative publicity accompanying tragic breakdowns of filly stars Ruffian and Go For Wand—on “bad luck.” But as every athlete knows, sometimes you have to make your own luck.

There are some hopeful signs. The most encouraging has been the successful debut of the American Championship Racing Series. ACRAS, a televised series of Grade I stakes, has heightened interest in old fans and attracted new ones. A particularly welcome new racing fan is rap singer MC Hammer, whose star filly Lite Lite first lost to Carl Icahn’s Meadow Star in the Mother Goose and then came back to whip her in the Coaching Club of America Oaks later in the summer. Hammer, whose music earned him $39 million last year, won a six-figure bet from Icahn and got off the second best remark of the year in racing upon being introduced to Leroy Jolley. “You’re the first white boy I ever met named Leroy,” he exclaimed to the notably humorless trainer. The best remark was made by octogenarian Ogden Phipps after Hammer celebrated Lite Lite’s victory by removing his shirt in the box adjacent to the racing patriarch’s and waving it at the crowd: “I suppose the next time I win a race I’ll have to drop my trousers in the winner’s circle.” Why not?

When I think of racing I think of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons—who rode at the old Aqueduct the day it opened in 1894 and went on to train two triple-crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha, late in life—sitting in the saddling ring, listening to and talking with all who came to pay homage to his stooped body and sagacious mind. I think of Man O’ War’s groom, Will Harbut, introducing visitors to Big Red on Samuel D. Riddle’s farm.

“He broke all the records and he broke down all the horses, so there wasn’t nothin’ for him to do but retire. He’s got everything a horse ought to have. He’s got it where a horse ought to have it. He’s just de mostest horse.”

I think of the great steward Francis Dunne joking that if the Japanese really wanted to make a successful sneak attack on the United States they should have come down Belmont Park’s old Widener Chute.

I think of little Fred Caposella crying out, “It is now post time,” in his big voice from the announcer’s booth. I think of the long-ago jump jockey shouting at his colleagues, which included the great amateur steeplechase rider of the Thirties, Pete Bostwick: “Get out of my way, you sons of bitches ... and you too Mr. Bostwick.”

Most of all, when I think of racing, I think of the excitement you feel in your bones and smell in the air at a good racetrack on the day of a great race. Tolstoy caught the flavor of a contest of champions in the magnificent race scene in Anna Karenina, but I don’t believe anyone has ever described the feeling of being at one with the huge crowd as a thrilling race begins, and thousands of people simultaneously try to keep track of all the changes in position and racing tactics that the various animals—equine and human—resort to in their efforts to prevail.

I think of stirring performances like Secretariat’s record-smashing 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes of 1973, or more poignantly, the courage shown by many a champion trying to stave off what he knows in his heart is certain defeat. Perhaps some people are capable of objectivity at such moments, but as the pounding of hooves deafens the roar of the crowd and the field comes swooping down the stretch, I am not one of them. And after I stood shouting Corporate Report home on Travers Day (upon whom I had not even bet), I thought of the horses of my lifetime—Jaipur, Buckpasser, Damascus, Key to the Mint, Affirmed (later disqualified), Java Gold, and Easy Goer—who had impressed me most in winning this race. And I thought of the great ones who came before—Scythian, Kentucky, Barbee, Bersan, Spur, Twenty Grand. It’s just de mostest sport, and it doesn’t deserve to die a slow death by political mismanagement—not when, with a bit of effort and fight, we could make it moster and moster.

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