Top-quality card pays dividends on Belmont Stakes Day

June 7 was a great day of racing at Belmont Park. The 146th running of the G1 Belmont Stakes along with the eight graded stakes races on the  undercard  provided the best day of racing that New York has hosted in a very long time. I was fortunate to attend with three of my colleagues  here at Thoroughbred  Racing Commentary, and we witnessed brilliant performances including Bayern in the G2 Woody Stephens, Sweet Reason in  the G1 Acorn, Close Hatches in the  G1 Ogden Phipps and Palace Malice in the G1 Metropolitan Handicap. 

Of course, the centerpiece of the card was the Belmont Stakes, won this year in an upset by Tonalist, ridden by Joel Rosario, trained by Christophe Clement, and owned by Robert S. Evans. Not so brilliant was Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome, who dead heated with Wicked Strong for fourth place. Many of the 102,199 in attendance at Belmont Park were deeply disappointed with the outcome of the race, but none more than California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn. To say that Mr. Coburn was a sore loser is an understatement, but more on that below.

Based on pedigree, California Chrome was questionable at the mile and a half distance, but he had successfully outrun his pedigree to date. Looking back on his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins, there were signs of his vulnerability. In the Derby, he defeated Commanding Curve by a diminishing length and three-quarters, and in the Preakness finished a length and a half ahead of Ride On Curlin. Both of those horses are still eligible for allowance conditions, and both were soundly beaten in the Belmont. 

More interesting is the recent lack of success of Preakness winners in the Belmont. As Nick Tammaro pointed out in his recent column: “during the recent 13-year period, horses who raced in the Preakness have struggled mightily three weeks later in the Belmont. Their collective record is 2-for-35, with the victories coming from eventual division champions Point Given (2001) and Afleet Alex (2005).”

California Chrome’s loss extended that streak to 2-for-36. 

Three days after California Chrome’s victory in the Derby, James Willoughby wrote: “Personally, I remain a believer in California Chrome – but – not as a Triple Crown winner. I do not see how he can possibly thrive on the deeper sandy surface at Belmont Park over a mile and a half, when he can’t beat 26 seconds for the last quarter of the Derby.” 

Now, for anyone who might accuse me of red-boarding, let the record show that the two horses that I had on top of my exotic bets were General a Rod and Wicked Strong. Even with good information, there are plenty of ways to buy a losing ticket.

As for California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn, we all know now that he was a very bad sport and a sore loser after the Belmont. Having confidently predicted on Friday that Chrome would win the Belmont, he then claimed that the race was conducted under unfair conditions and only horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness should be allowed to run in the Belmont. That is a very misguided notion for a number of reasons. 

First, this would result in a very small field for the Belmont and therefore make it a meaningless race. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that according to Graded Stakes Committee criteria, the Preakness and the Belmont would then be considered “restricted” races and would be stripped of their G1 status.

Undoubtedly there will be ongoing discussions of changing the timing and perhaps even the distances of the three Triple Crown events. For a long time, I had been a traditionalist and felt that the Triple Crown was the Triple Crown and leave it alone. I must admit, presented with some interesting arguments this spring, I did waver, but after reading Steve Crist’s articulate column on the topic, I have reverted back to my former opinion. 

Finally, congratulations to The New York Racing Association (NYRA), for the numbers that they achieved on Saturday. Attendance of 102,199 was the third highest in history. Handle records were obliterated. On track wagering of $19.1 million clobbered the previous mark of $14.5 million, and the all-sources handle on Saturday of approximately $150 million far exceeded the approximately $110 million all-source record that was set in 2004 when Smarty Jones failed to capture the Triple Crown.

One thought regarding purses – on big racing days with high purse levels, it is extremely difficult for a racing association to earn enough via wagering to cover the day’s elevated purses. While I am not privy to NYRA’s simulcast rates, I am assuming that the statutory rate of 6 percent would apply for on-track wagers, which would yield a purse contribution of approximately $1.1 million. 

Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations, had publically stated that NYRA planned to increase their simulcast rates to as high as 9 percent for this day. I would guess that they achieved that with a number of simulcast customers, but larger customers with long-term contracts would have been more difficult to increase. Therefore, I would estimate that they achieved an 8 percent blended rate for simulcast customers. Purses at NYRA get 50 percent of that fee, which by my calculation would be approximately $5.2 million for a total purse contribution of approximately $6.3 million. This would leave a deficit of approximately $1.7 million that will be funded from other days of racing at NYRA where earned purse revenue exceeds paid purses. 

All in all, a great day of racing and congratulations to the NYRA employees, owners, trainers, jockeys, and the betting customers for their many contributions.

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