Aqueduct’s Struggles to Fill Races Continue

Thursday’s card at Aqueduct was not drawn until 3 p.m. Saturday, some 24 hours after the deadline for trainers to enter their horses had come and gone. At least they put together a card, something that looked to be in jeopardy a few hours earlier. But it’s not much of a card. There will be only eight races with 49 total horses entered, or an average of 6.125 horses per race.

It has never been easy to fill races in New York during the winter, but the last few weeks have been particularly difficult for the NYRA racing office. With the racing week that concluded yesterday, there were 34 races run at Aqueduct and 18 of them had six starters or fewer.

“The last two weekends we held the entry box open to Sunday [for the Thursday programs] to try to bolster the card a little bit,” said NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza. “This week, however, it was a particular struggle, for whatever reason. We’ve struggled the last week, week and a half.”

Due to severe weather, NYRA did not complete a full card from Dec. 29 to Jan. 13. Had there not been that gap in the racing schedule, the current problem of filling races could be that much worse.

Like all racing organizations, NYRA is having to deal with what has become the modern theory on training a race horse–run them as little as possible–which makes it hard to fill races everywhere. But Panza says NYRA has problems that are unique to its circuit, in particular the high cost of workmen’s compensation in New York.

“We were over at Oaklawn trying to hustle some guys to come from Oaklawn for the Belmont meet,” Panza said. “We need dirt horses. So we went down there and that seemed to be the universal theme when you go from barn to barn, people say that they’d love to come to New York, but with workmen’s comp the expenses are just too high. The purses are what they are here but that only helps you if you win. The costs are set. A guy looks at the costs, thinks I have to pay this much for workmen’s comp and this much for my housing, I can find some place cheaper to race. [New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association President] Joe Applebaum is a good guy. If he can get the governor’s office to cooperate with us, hopefully, we can get some things done this year.”

Panza said another problem is the way purses are structured at NYRA, particularly for the lower level races. When there was a rash of breakdowns during the winter of 2012, a panel put in new rules that forbid NYRA from having a purse that is more than double the claiming price. The theory was that if the purses were too big for cheap horses, trainers might run an unsound animal in hopes that it would hold together and get a part of the pot.

“Our $10,000 claimer runs for $20,000 and the $10,000 claimer at Parx runs for $28,000,” Panza said. “Our day rate is $100-a-day and the day rate down there is $65. We’re at a disadvantage on the cheaper end of our claiming races. That’s another thing we have to get the state to allow us to change.”

Panza would also like to see NYRA based horsemen more loyal to the NYRA product. With Laurel and Parx also having big purses, it’s not uncommon to see New York horses head down the highway to run at the competing racetracks. On Saturday, there were six NYRA-based horses that ran at Parx and two at Laurel. One in particular stands out. Trained by Gary Sciacca, the New York-bred Hit It Once More (Hard Spun) has made three straight starts at Parx and ran there in four of his last five starts.

“It certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Panza said of seeing New York horse race out of town. “On one hand they say NYRA is trying to kill winter racing and on the other hand they’re all running some place else. It is very frustrating, especially when we have to run five- and six-horse fields.”

Panza is frustrated to the point that he isn’t afraid to say that NYRA might need to further cut back on its winter dates.

“We probably need to run just three days a week in the winter, like they do at Laurel and Parx,” he said.

After the Keeneland spring meet ends, NYRA has a much easier time filling races as the major outfits have made it back to New York by then. In the meantime, it looks like it’s going to be a rough winter.