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A Day for the Ages, Well, Kind of

by Brian Nadeau

June 8, 2017

If you’re a racing fan, you’ve been looking forward to Belmont Stakes Day for months. If you’re a bettor, there’s chance you’ve been looking to this day since Arrogate crossed the line first last November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After all, deep fields with competitive, all-star horses in prestigious GI stakes races, surrounded by million dollar betting pools and lucrative horizontal exotics are what the game is all about. And Saturday at Belmont Park, the New York Racing Association delivered the former with aplomb, but it’s the latter that is, sadly, severely lacking. 

The idea of Belmont Stakes Day becoming a mid-season type of Breeders’ Cup was introduced a few years ago by NYRA and Martin Panza and succeeded and then some, as it gave fans of the sport an opportunity to view the game’s biggest stars, at one the game’s most important race tracks, while offering ginormous purses on some of the sport’s most historic and important races. And it was a game-changer instantly. Once somewhat of an afterthought when a Triple Crown wasn’t on the line, Belmont Stakes Day instantly became a must-see event, with no fewer than six Grade I races being offered, many of which are important, resume-making linchpins on the national calendar. 

This year is no different, as the GI Ogden Phipps lured two-time champion and future Hall of Famer Songbird, with trainer Jerry Hollendorfer admitting aloud that he could have run last week in Santa Anita’s GI Beholder Mile, but the robust 750k purse of the Phipps lured him to New York. Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman decided to cut back and run in the GI Acorn at a one-turn mile, while divisional leader Dickinson showed up for the GI Just a Game. And of course, that’s without even mentioning large fields with tepid favorites in the GIII Jaipur, GII Woody Stephens, GI Met Mile and GI Manhattan. Oh yeah, and there’s the feature too, the Belmont Stakes, which has a modest field, but is a bettor’s bonanza, with no clear-cut favorite and any number of different ways to go. 

To say NYRA hit it out the park is an understatement. At least in terms of the equine starts they’ve attracted. If you want to talk about the betting menu offered on what is on the short list of best betting days of the year, well, they hit a swinging bunt back to the pitcher. 

Where to start? First and foremost, they insulted our intelligence by guaranteeing the Pk5 (races 1-5) at 500k. As a point of reference, last Saturday, on the calm before the storm card, the Pk5, with a light 34 total betting interests, attracted 414k. To guarantee this Saturday’s pool at 500k is laughable and the definition of the easy way out. The could have guaranteed it at $1.5 million and bettors would have flocked to it and then some. It’s the best bet in the game, with a 15% takeout, and offers even the little guy a chance at a monumental score, especially since it’s just a 50-cent base bet. But NYRA didn’t stop there. To make the Pk5 even more insulting, they decided to card the Phipps as R5, which essentially means anyone on a budget gets to single Songbird at 1-100 and turn the sequence into a Pk4. Which, in turn, will also hurt the handle on the race, since, anyone who was looking to make a big investment in the sequence, will pass since there is a lead pipe cinch diluting the payout in the cashout leg.

Adding more salt to the wound, the guaranteed 500k Pk6, a bet that no one really plays in New York until it carries over at least one day, if not two (one-day carryover pools at the meet have ranged from 15-25k), kicks off a race later, with a $2 base bet. Bettors who play the Pk6 love a free square, since it adds up quickly at $2 per play, so putting Songbird and the Phipps in the sequence would have been a no-brainer. And that’s before even mentioning they would be giving one of the best, most popular female racehorses in many a year, a little afternoon love and added exposure, instead of allowing her much-anticipated comeback to be held at the grand hour of 1:52pm Saturday afternoon. The race that kicks off the Pk6 is a doozy of a renewal of the Jaipur, which drew 10, of which at least six can win. How cool would it have been to end the Pk5 with that race and turn it into an absolute beast of a sequence? And if they didn’t want to start the Pk6 with Songbird at 1-100, they could have easily used R7, the GII Woody Stephens, to kick off the sequence, since the 11-horse field is another head scratcher. 

NYRA also refused to schedule a middle Pk4, instead offering up a pair of Friday-Saturday doubles that no one cares about, with guaranteed pools of 100k and 300k, respectively. If you can find anyone who is clamoring to play the New York-Met Mile double (100k), or the Gold Cup-Belmont double(300k), then beers are on me. The guaranteed $1.5 million Pk4, ending with the Belmont, is a monster of a sequence and will easily surpass the number, and I’ll be playing it with both fists and eagerly awaiting the bet. But that’s literally the only one. 

NYRA announced a few weeks ago that they would not bring back the Pk5 on 10-race cards, like they had been doing since the last few days of Saratoga. Why, I have no idea, because it did little to cannibalize the late Pk4, but they obviously have their reasons. But how they can’t offer a monster Pk5 ending with the Belmont stakes is beyond my comprehension. We as bettors wait for days like this for months and months, and we ration out our bankrolls out accordingly. Give us a $1 million late Pk5 and $1.5 million late Pk4 and we’ll show you pools of $2 million each. Obviously, I’m missing something, but for the life of me, I have no idea what it is, unless they just don’t want to dip into the world of 15% takeout. 

I can’t wait for Saturday and have to golf clap to the rafters for the job NYRA has done in bringing about the best-of-the-best in the sport of kings. I just wish they would follow up on the back end too and allow us to bet on it accordingly.