As usual, there were plenty of memorable - several of them historic - stories played out during the 2012 racing season. That’s pretty much the rule, certainly not the exception, at America’s oldest, most popular and important track.
The circus, that is NYRA and its annual upstate run, packed up and left town Monday evening. The images, memories and records remain.
Although the attendance was static and the handle figures increased, showing that the business was a success, there was a weird feel to the meet. The firing of NYRA President Charlie Hayward in May for his involvement in a wagering scandal and the state’s subsequent move to take control of NYRA for three years produced a summer of uncertainty, speculation and rumors about the future.
Yes, the show went on. Yes, Saratoga was a fun place to spend one afternoon or many watching and betting on top-level racing. Yes, the major races were run and stars emerged.
Yes, the tone was different as NYRA’s employees waited anxiously to learn whether the state’s takeover would affect their lives and careers. Yes, NYRA’s top management, which does not have a Hayward-type with his combination of knowledge, personality and charisma, kept its collective head down for over six weeks. No, you can’t blame anyone employed by NYRA for being nervous and worrying about what is ahead.
At some point, maybe next week, maybe next month, we will start to see how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration manages its racing association.
Whoever is in charge at Saratoga next summer ought to make sure that the public address system and all the televisions on the premises are working properly on opening day. It was an embarrassing start to the season.
On a larger scale, the new administration should consider whether NYRA is trying to squeeze too much out of Saratoga. More races - there were 417 this summer, a jump of 20 from last year - was terrific for horsemen because it gave them more opportunities to run and earn purse money. Many observers felt racing overload with 10 races every Monday and Wednesday, 10 or 11 most Thursdays and very busy weekends. We have faced a similar question since the expansion of the season began two decades ago: How much is too much?
Saratoga is long on tradition, yet this season ended Monday without the usual little events in the winner’s circle honoring the leading trainer and top jockey. Maybe H. Allen Jerkens and Angel Cordero, Jr., for whom the Saratoga awards are named, had already headed home. Maybe.
If so, couldn’t someone else - perhaps a past winner - been found to take part in a ceremony honoring leading trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey champ Ramon Dominguez? A photo opportunity at Belmont Park on Saturday isn’t nearly the same as taking care of Saratoga business at Saratoga.
- The performance of the season was turned in by Questing when she crushed a good field in the Grade 1 Alabama on August 18. Her time of 2:01.29 was one of the fastest in race history and was more than a second faster than the Travers winners covered the same distance a week later.
- Wise Dan in the Fourstardave, Fort Larned in the Whitney and Shanghai Bobby in the Hopeful were mighty impressive and among the contenders for the outstanding performance, but none could top Questing.
- The best non-winning performance was by It’s Tricky finishing third in the Personal Ensign. She stumbled so badly coming out the gate that her nose hit the ground, but she got up and ran a huge race to be a competitive third.
- It turned out that the race of the meet was the 143rd Travers. With so many of the better 3-year-olds on the sidelines or retired, the Travers attracted what was a below-par field. That collection of horses produced a memorable race with favored Alpha and long shot Golden Ticket in a dead heat for the win. Another long shot, Fast Falcon, was just behind the winners. While the 2012 Travers probably won’t have any impact on the 3-year-old title, it was a race for the ages and another example of the unpredictability of sport.
- Ramon Dominguez had a remarkable meet and ran away with the jockey title. Twice he rode six winners on a single program to earn a place in the annals of Saratoga racing and with a record 68 winners he didn’t have many bad days. Dominguez eclipsed John Velazquez’ total of 64 wins in a season, but let’s not forget that Velazquez reached that level during a 36-day season. Dominguez got there in 39 days, though it was more like 37 1/3 because he went out of town twice to ride in stakes.
- Worth noting: Velazquez returned from injury on the fifth racing day and rode a reduced schedule during the next few weeks. He finished 38 wins behind Dominguez with 30 wins, but he was winning the big ones and finished second in purse money earned. Dominguez had $4.8 million, while Velazquez completed the season at $4 million.
- Todd Pletcher turned in a Pletcher-esque meeting, winning the trainers’ title for the third year in a row and the ninth overall in 15 years. He won 23 of his 36 races with his powerful 2-year-old contingent.
- Mechanicville native Chad Brown continued his ascent to the top levels of the training business with 29 wins and again finished second to Pletcher. Brown’s wins came from 95 starters, an exceptional 31 percent win rate, and his starters finished in the top three 66 percent of the time.
- Trainer Al Stall had an outstanding season while flying well under the radar. From 23 starts, Stall compiled a 7-3-7 record. That’s a 30 percent win mark with 74 percent of his starters hitting the board.
- Six trainers earned more than $1 million in purses. Pletcher led the way with $3.5 million. Following him were, Kiaran McLaughlin, $2 million; Brown $1.98 million; Bill Mott, $1.95 million; Rick Dutrow, $1.023 million; and Shug McGaughey, $1.021 million.
- McLaughlin had eight wins, four in Grade 1’s and a fifth in a Grade 2, the Jim Dandy. It's Tricky had bad luck to be third in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign and Fortify was second in the Grade 2 Hopeful.
- We know that Saratoga is a big deal locally and nationally. How big? The total handle was approaching $600 million at $588,351,964.
- NYRA’s Spa stats: 90 allowance races, up 13.9 percent; 185 route races, up 14.2 percent; 197 turf races, up 25 percent; average betting interests of 8.4, up from 8.2 in 2011.
- Weather is critical to success every summer. This year, NYRA benefitted from an amazing run of great weather and was able to stay even on the daily average attendance with last year. The terrific weather, especially in the last three weeks, had to have a positive impact on the handle. NYRA didn’t lose a turf race after Sunday, August 12. According to NYRA stats, only 27 races were taken off the turf, compared to 41 last year. The 197 turf races, up 25 percent from a year ago, were 47 percent of the total races run during the 40 days.
H. Allen Jerkens
- While there were many memorable moments this summer, none can surpass the reaction of the crowd on August 4 when it realized that Emma’s Encore had won the Grade 1 Prioress. The applause was not for the filly, who got up to win in the last stride, but for her trainer, the great H. Allen Jerkens, a legendary figure in American racing. Jerkens, 83, started his career in 1950 competing against the likes of Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Hirsch Jacobs, Preston Burch, Woody Stephens, Sylvester Veitch, John Gaver and Max Hirsch. Sixty-two years later, tears in his eyes, the man who trained horses that defeated Forego, Kelso, Buckpasser and Secretariart was posing for pictures after yet another important win at Saratoga.