Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this spot we present the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week’s we’ll take a look at a day of racing at Belmont Park that produced some red, white, and blue excitement.
There have been plenty of new ideas in Thoroughbred racing during the last four years, yet few have been successful as the launch of the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival at Belmont Park.
Launched in 2014, the idea of building the July 4 weekend around million-dollar, Grade 1 turf stakes for 3-year-old colts and fillies seemed risky but it has proven to be as popular as fireworks in the nighttime sky.
This past Saturday’s fifth edition of the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks continued an impressive upward swing as a crowd of 16,763 brought an unusually high amount of vitality to the massive grandstand and grounds of Belmont Park and all-sources handle soared to $24,612,463 with an extra 57 cents for good measure.
The brainchild of New York Racing Association’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza, the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival debuted in 2014 with a 10-race card and a handle of $18,829,264. Last year, that figure stood at $22,341,423 for an 11-race card, which means Saturday’s handle represented a stellar 10 percent jump from 2017 and reflected well on the wisdom of using two reimagined turf races and the July 4 holiday to craft another big day of racing.
“Any time you start a new event it takes time to build it, but it’s been very satisfying to watch the growth of the Stars & Stripes Festival,” Panza said. “We’re very pleased that people are becoming more aware of the stakes and it’s become a good day of racing with a good betting card.”
Equally satisfying was the crowd and the kind of buzz Belmont Park has not seen since four weeks earlier when Justify used the Belmont Stakes as a springboard to becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner.
“I know 17,000 isn’t 40,000 but in today’s era getting about 17,000 people to the races is a good thing,” Panza said. “I was walking out of the grandstand after the last race with Carmen Barrera (NYRA’s Director of Horsemen’s Relations) and we both took note that there were a lot of people walking out with us because it’s something you don’t see all the time. There were a lot of people heading to the cars.”
Aside from the great business numbers, the two centerpieces of a five-stakes program have quickly changed the landscape of turf racing in this country and have gained the attention of Europe’s premier stables. Go back in time five years and there was little reason to rush a young horse into turf racing since the spring of their 3-year-old year was basically vacation time for them.
The birth of the $1.2 million Belmont Derby and the $1 million Belmont Oaks, both at a mile-and-a-quarter on the turf, changed all of that. Now once a 2-year-old shows promise on the turf, there’s no burning need to dabble with dirt racing since there’s a very lucrative race waiting for them in July of their 3-year-old season. As far back as last November and December, horsemen began to target the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks with their Breeders’ Cup and graded turf stakes winners.
The two stakes have not only succeeded in bringing group stakes winners from trainer Aidan O’Brien’s all-star European barn but have helped to create stars, broodmares, and stallion prospects through a list of winners that includes Lady Eli, Catch a Glimpse, New Money Honey, Deauville, and Oscar Performance.
Saturday’s races only added to that roster with O’Brien’s Athena, who was third in a Group 1 stakes in Ireland only a week earlier, taking the Oaks, and the Derby providing a classic stretch duel with Catholic Boy fighting back in the final furlong to edge Analyze It in a race that will likely rate as one of the year’s most exciting battles.
Packaged with the $700,000 Grade 2 Suburban Stakes, that went to the New York-bred Diversify; the $350,000 Grade 2 Belmont Sprint Championship, a “Win and You’re In” stakes for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint that was captured by Limousine Liberal; and the $300,000 Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes, where Firenze Fire beat European sensation Mendelssohn; the two Grade 1 stakes were part of a day of racing that certainly rates as special in any definition of the word.
Consider for a moment that on June 22 at Royal Ascot, which offers a five-day meet with the kind of racing many consider to be the best in the world, there were also two Group 1 turf races for 3-year-olds, the one-mile Coronation Stakes for fillies with a purse of 538,750 pounds and the six-furlong Commonwealth Cup worth 500,000 pounds. The six-race card also had a Group 2 and Group 3 stakes and the day features a total purse value of 1,533,750 pounds which translate to approximately $2,030,288 in American dollars.
Now this is not to say what happened at Belmont Park on Saturday could match the atmosphere, the royalty, the rich and the famous, and all the top hats of a day at Ascot. Yet there were more graded stakes and more purse money ($2,550,000) than that Friday at Ascot and the response to it illustrates how the bundling of stakes into a day like the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival has become a popular and effective means for generating interest in racing and bringing people back to the track.
“What happened Saturday makes me believe that if we can build more big days, that’s the way for the sport to grow right now,” said Panza, who is mulling added more stakes to next year’s Festival. “You just have to take baby steps and then come up with the events, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do, and then be patient enough to give them time to grow. We’re here for the long run.”
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: