They took their seats on the dais, smiles on their faces. It was a three-man brigade -- led by NYRA President and CEO Charles Hayward. He was joined by his Vice President Hal Handel and Racing Secretary PJ Campo. The banner behind them read “Saratoga,” and the executive smiles were given context.
Salesmen know, in their hearts, when they’ve got the goods. Makes their job a whole lot easier. These men assumed their seats knowing full well that they had the goods.
They survived a long, cold, uncertain winter to get to this moment -- Monday’s Saratoga kickoff press conference. As of December 6 2010, there were 51 establishments within the five boroughs of New York City in which it was legal to place a wager on a horse race. Twenty-four hours later, that number was reduced to one. Proactive leadership, aggressive marketing, and savvy political maneuverings helped see NYRA through, what could’ve been, an extremely dark period.
But there they were, in their glory. The moment was a long time coming. And it was well-deserved.
NYRA Communications Director Dan Silver was the first to take the podium. After welcoming those in attendance, he rattled off a seemingly endless laundry list of corporate business partners, giving them special commendation. The message couldn’t have been clearer. It is chic to be in business with NYRA at this time of year. Everybody wants a piece of Saratoga.
And with good reason. Here is a look at just some of what NYRA is featuring -- both on and off-track -- as part of this year’s meet:
NBC/Versus Television Coverage
If you can’t make it to Saratoga, no sweat! NBC and Versus have got you covered with the most ambitious national television schedule ever offered from upstate. Every Saturday (plus one Sunday -- August 7th), one of the two networks will offer one hour of coverage from the Spa.
At Monday’s Saratoga kickoff press gathering in Albany, Charles Hayward expressed tremendous enthusiasm about NBC’s involvement, even relaying an anecdote in which NBC asked a valued content provider -- the USGA -- if they could move up the starting time of the U.S. Amateur golf tournament so that the network could televise the Travers Stakes. Both parties seem committed to making this work.
17 Grade I races
15 percent of the Grade I races conducted in North America this year will take place at
Saratoga. The best of the Classic, Distaff, Sprint, Turf, 3-year-old (both male and female), and 2-year-old (both male and female) divisions will slug it out in some of the sport’s most prestigious races. Eleven of these races, by the way, will be televised nationally on NBC or Versus.
Two year-old races
Lots of them. Eighty, to be precise. Owners and trainers take immense pride in unveiling their best juveniles at Saratoga. Last year, we were dazzled by stars such as Boys At Tosconova -- who captured the Hopeful Stakes without ever being asked for run. As well as the division’s eventual champion, Uncle Mo -- who broke his maiden in jaw-dropping fashion on Travers day. We can expect to see racing’s stars of tomorrow on display in one of the sport’s most majestic settings.
David Fawkes heads a solid new contingent of trainers who will be stabled on the grounds this summer. He’s joined by Donnie Von Hemel -- trainer of 3 year-old stakes winners Alternation and Caleb’s Posse -- and Charles Lopresti -- who captured last year’s Forego with Here Comes Ben.
The biggest stars in the sport have taken to competing at Saratoga every year. 2011 will be no exception.
On the training side, reigning kingpin Todd Pletcher will look to stave off challenges from Linda Rice (whose prowess in turf sprints makes her a threat to capture this title, as she did in 2009), Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Christophe Clement, Al Stall,Ian Wilkes, Kentucky Derby winner H. Graham Motion, Preakness winner Dale Romans, and New York legend Allen Jerkens -- for whom each year’s Saratoga champion trainer trophy is named.
NYRA is renewing their commitment to the seldom seen races this meet. At least one steeplechase race will be run every Thursday, and every other Thursday, two steeplechase races will be run. The jumpers will run their signature race, the New York Turf Writers’ Cup, on August 25th.
NYRA is continuing their policy of a year ago, offering a twenty-percent increase to any off the turf races which features eight or more runners. In addition, all starters will now be paid $1,000 in every race. Campo stated during Monday’s press conference that it was his hope that the new initiatives would lead to larger fields.
New Food and Beverage Options
Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and Blue Smoke proved to be huge hits with the patrons at Saratoga. This year’s new food and drink provider, Dunkin’ Donuts, may not have the panache of Shake Shack, but it will certainly provide a comforting reminder of home to many displaced downstaters.
The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the Backstretch Employee Service Team, and the Albany Times-Union’s Hope Fund are just a few of the organizations who stand to benefit from the numerous charitable endeavors on the part of NYRA and others in the racing community.
The precious few days during the racing season when, for the modest ($3) price of admission, items are given away are coveted by many Saratoga attendees. This year will feature four such days (all Sundays).
The schedule is as follows:
Saratoga Baseball Cap -- Sunday, July 31
Saratoga Short Sleeve T-Shirt -- Sunday, August 14
Saratoga Sports Bag -- Sunday August 21
Saratoga Long Sleeve T-Shirt -- Sunday, September 4
T-minus 24 days to first post.