To say these last three months have been extremely difficult would be an across-the-board understatement. Yes for me, yes for you, yes for everyone throughout the country. Hopefully you have stayed healthy throughout this pandemic that not only shut down racing for several months but basically shut the entire nation down. Last week, though we are seemingly far from near the end of this awful pandemic which has beset our nation and the entire globe, we did see horses return to the track at Saratoga Casino Hotel. After the unexpected layoff of close to three months, racing returned to the Spa on Thursday afternoon and while it was great to be back, the feel was certainly different than it was when we came back from the winter hiatus in February.
With no fans allowed at the track for the time being, off-track simulcasting is the only form of wagering currently available for horse players. And though those that love to come to the races, especially in the spring and summer months, aren’t able to do so for now, it was important to get racing back going. Yes, for a small sense of normalcy in these chaotic circumstances in which we have all found ourselves and yes, for those who wish to watch and bet on our races to have an opportunity to take part in that form of entertainment but maybe most of all for the horsemen and women. It is important to be back for the owners who continued to pay their bills throughout the months when they had no opportunity to have their horses earn back some or all of what they have put into them over the time and also for the trainers who worked so hard on a daily basis to keep their horses in shape and ready to roll when they got word that racing would be returning. As it has for most businesses, these times hit the racing industry so hard. And now, albeit in different circumstances than when racing came to a halt in March, horses are back on the track giving their connections a chance to earn again.
A couple of major changes that have come to the forefront for the short and potentially longer term were glaring when you opened your Saratoga program for the first time last week. As is the case at most tracks these days, the purses are significantly less than their normal levels and we are only going to be racing two days a week for awhile, as opposed to the normal four times per week that we would be racing without the pandemic. It is no secret that a large portion of the purse money that horses race for comes from revenue generated by the slots, or video gaming machines. With the casino side of the property shut down for three months, obviously the money from them that help fund purses simply isn’t there. Therefore, with an eye on the longevity of the racing season, the two-day per week schedule was implemented with reduced purses in the interest of making sure there is sufficient money to fund purses as the casino and the majority of the property remains shut down. The hope is to bump up to three days/nights a week in the near future and hopefully we can do so with some fans at the races (fingers crossed!) As is the case with everything these days, all we can do is wait to see how things play out and hope for the best.
On the track, it was business as usual last week with thirteen races on each of the two cards. The Thursday show-stealer was a three year old pacer who drew post eight in what was just his second lifetime start. My Pal Joe qualified impressively in a prep for his 2020 debut, a start that would see him stop the timer in an eye-popping 1:53.4 on Thursday. As if a maiden going 1:53.4 from post eight weren’t incredible enough, My Pal Joe looked to have done it with ease for his driver-trainer Alek Chartrand. The win was one of two victories from post eight on the card for Chartrand. The total handle (amount of money bet on the races) on Thursday was over a half million dollars, certainly an uptick from our normal weekday matinee cards and served as a sign of the pent up demand for horse racing and for entertainment in general in this country.
Sunday afternoon’s card was highlighted by a double feature. The Open Trot and Open Pace were contested for purses of $8,500, clearly a large reduction from the regular $15,000 for the featured races that was on the line before the pandemic. Still, the quality of competition was high and the track’s defending Trotter and Pacer of the Year each made their return on Sunday. 2019 award winners Cash Me Out and Crockets Cullen N each recorded an Open win in the early going of this season before the unexpected layoff. The Kyle Spagnola-trained Cash Me Out marched out to an easy lead on Sunday in the defending Horse of the Year’s return to the track and made every pole a winning one en route to a decisive 1:56.1 victory with Brett Crawford in the sulky. Though he raced like a 1-5 shot, Cash Me Out paid $8.70 to win in what was the millionaire trotter’s 52nd career victory.
Crockets Cullen N started from post two on Sunday and was his race’s second choice at odds of 2-1. The track’s defending top pacer didn’t fare as well as the reigning top trotter though as Crockets Cullen N faltered on the front-end in the $8,500 co-feature and faded to a fifth-place finish. Jimmy Nickerson’s Betterlatethnnever pulled off an upset in the Open Pace scoring at odds of 8-1 with Jay Randall at the controls in a mile clocked in 1:52.4. Well, while things certainly look and feel a bit different these days, we are back! It’s great to be back in the announcer’s booth just as I know it was great for the horsemen and horsewomen to return to the paddock and for the owners to get a chance to have their horses race. It’ll be different for a while but hopefully, sooner rather than later, we will return to a bit more normalcy at the track even if the process is a gradual one.
Racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoon beginning at 12 Noon with betting available on SaratogaBets and on all off-track wagering platforms. There is a $3,000 guarantee in the Pick Five pool each day with the Pick Five starting in race one. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU (soon I hope) at the finish line!