Why Friday’s race day at Saratoga holds a special place in New York’s heart

Future Graded stakes winner Upstart winning the Funny Cide Stakes on Saratoga Showcase Day in 2014. Photo: Adam Mooshian/NYRA.com

Racing traditionalists will remember that, not too long ago, the excitement of the Saratoga meet gave way to the excitement of what was known as the Belmont Fall Championship meet. Stakes races like the Woodward (now held at Saratoga) and the Jockey Club Gold Cup headlined a two-month meeting at Belmont Park that often decided end-of-year Eclipse Awards.

Part of that fall meeting, and often as anticipated as the Grade 1 races, was New York Showcase Day.

A day of stakes races for New York-bred horses, held towards the end of the meet in late October, it embodied autumn, with beautiful Belmont Park festooned in the crimson and yellow of turning leaves, vendors selling apples from New York’s newly-ripe crop, and shadows appearing in the afternoon as fall sunlight faded.

Before the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which runs Belmont Park along with Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course, stacked its fall stakes races onto two big days, when each weekend featured a prestigious stakes race or two, the day of the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup was the highlight of the meeting and perennially topped handle figures. But, coming in second in terms of money wagered, also perennially, was New York Showcase Day.

Economic impact

The New York racing and breeding industry loved the day, the attention given to horses bred in the state and the big purses allotted to their restricted stakes races. But the bettors loved it, too, and in 2013 NYRA added a second day of New York-bred stakes race to its calendar, this one at the end of May, dubbed Big Apple Showcase Day, and a year later, Saratoga Showcase Day made its début, as part of Saratoga’s flagship Travers weekend.  

“There are a lot of people around for the Travers, so we want to take advantage of that crowd,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations. “We’re trying to promote New York-bred racing as much as possible so that people breed horses and create economic impact in the state.”

A 2012 study commissioned by the New York State Racing and Agriculture Industry Alliance found that the direct and indirect economic impact of horse racing in the state was $4.2 billion and a driver of nearly 33,000 jobs.

While the state breeding industry faltered significantly during the economic troubles of 2008, with farms being sold and mares being taken out of state, the infusion of gaming money into the NYRA tracks in 2012, when the Resorts World Casino New York opened at Aqueduct, and the recovering economy spurred a revitalization of Thoroughbred breeding, with New York’s annual foal crop growing as other states’ continued to fall.  

Saratoga Showcase Day was first held the day after the Travers, then moved to the Friday before. Many of the six stakes races had already existed on the Saratoga schedule; moving them to one day in late August creates the feeling of a mini-festival and positions them on New York’s racing calendar as timely preps for the Showcase day in October at Belmont.  

This year, the six races offer $1.15 million in purse money to horses bred in New York State. According to the New York Breeding and Development Fund, a foal must meet certain criteria in order to be eligible to be registered as a New York-bred:

  • If the mare lives outside of New York State, she must come to New York “well in advance” of her foaling due date, and she must remain in New York State for at least 90 days after foaling. Within that 90-day period, she must be bred back to a New York-based stallion.

  • If a resident New York State mare is bred to a horse outside of the state, she must come back to New York within 90 days of the breeding and remain in New York until she foals.

Conditions also apply to mares sent out of state to be sold at auction.

Foals registered as New York-bred are then eligible for monetary awards that go to both the horse’s owner and breeder. The awards vary depending on whether the race is restricted or open, and whether the runner is sired by a New York stallion or not.  

Click here for full details of the New York owner and breeder awards

Before the recent Fasig-Tipton sale of New York-bred horses in Saratoga, consignor/owner Hanzly Albina of Blake-Albina Thoroughbred Services observed, “We just ran a [New York-bred] filly the other day; everyone else was racing for $80,000, and we were running for $90,000.”  

“These million-dollar [racing] days are special,” said Jeffrey Cannizzo, executive director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders. “The ‘big event’ days are geared towards driving handle and attendance and offering quality racing. We’re the only state that can say that we have three $1 million days for state-breds.”

“We want to offer New York-bred racing and offer incentives to breed in the state,” said Panza. “This is part of that.”

In recent years, horses that have won on Saratoga Showcase Day have gone on to be recognizable names outside the state, winning graded stakes races at tracks across the country.

In 2014, 2-year-old Upstart, who had been purchased for $130,000 as a yearling at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton New York-bred yearling sale, won the Funny Cide Stakes, named for the New York-bred that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003, then went on to win G3 races at Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park, retiring with earnings of $1.7 million.

King Kreesa and Lubash, who have won the last three runnings of the West Point, have won a handful of graded stakes and earned a total of $2.9 million.  

This year’s Saratoga Showcase Day takes place on Friday, and while the effect on handle and attendance won’t be quite as sharp as it is on Belmont Park — because Saratoga regularly boasts high figures in both areas — it will bring people to the races that might not ordinarily be there.

“It’s nice to have a feature like this at Saratoga and be on center stage,” said Joe McMahon of McMahon Thoroughbreds, the breeder of Funny Cide who has long been a major player in the state’s racing industry. “It’s good for our industry, and there are a lot of people, especially from upstate New York, that don’t go down to Belmont. It’s an opportunity for them to see their horses compete on the big stage.”

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