Panelists at Wednesday night’s annual Saratoga meet preview at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame spoke with optimism about this summer’s racing season while acknowledging the challenges and uncertainty facing New York racing.
Saratogian turf writer Michael Veitch, trainer Dale Romans, Saratoga native and jockey agent Matt Muzikar, and jockey Rosie Napravnik, who is represented by Muzikar, took questions from the audience for nearly 90 minutes. While the panel was devoid for the first time in recent memory of a representative from the New York Racing Association, those in attendance spoke at length about both what’s working and what’s uncertain in the future of racing here.
Held up at another event, Napravnik arrived too late to hear her agent tell those assembled that in his opinion, the top two jockeys in the country are Javier Castellano (whom he also represents) and John Velazquez; though she’s riding here for the first time this summer, Napravnik may have gotten the warmest reception from the audience, and her combination of wit and sassiness brought the most enthusiastic responses of the evening. When asked about her favorite horse to ride, she answered, “That’s a hard one. I’ve told so many trainers that their horses were my favorite.”
Later on, when Romans said, “Rosie is one of those rare talents that doesn’t come along every day,” she looked at him and retorted without missing a beat, “I don’t think I’m on any of [your horses] opening day.”
“That’s because,” Romans responded, “I couldn’t get you.” “That’s true,” Muzikar admitted.
More seriously, Kentuckian Romans put his allegiance to New York racing front and center. Never one to shy from the microphone, he didn’t mince words when asked about the rise of racinos and current affairs here.
“I think everyone in racing would have liked to have seen other forms of gaming stay in Las Vegas and Atlantic City,” he said. “But it has spread around the country, and it’s difficult for a racetrack to compete with casinos. It’s been a big boost in the arm to smaller racetracks that might not be in existence if they hadn’t had been subsidized in some form.
“But then a lot of greed sets in. We’re seeing in New York what happens when the money starts flowing. The attacks come, whether it’s from the casino industry or the special interest groups that all want their hands on the dollar.
“What I hope is that most of these state governments realize that the casinos suck a lot of money out of the economy, and this is one way of forcing it back into the economy. When the racetracks and the casino work hand in hand as they do in New York, you’re stimulating two major industries, instead of having all the profits go to the casinos and the shareholders. You’re supporting so many people that the industry supports, even down to the guys that sell the nails that put the fences up around the breeding farms.”
Veitch offered a slightly different perspective, expressing disappointment at the notion that racing has been characterized as being subsidized by gaming revenue. “Tracks were viewed as the right place to have gaming because the casino interests didn’t have to buy the land or put a whole lot of money into developing a property that was already developed. In many instances, the tracks made that investment,” he said.
“I am very sure,” he went on, “that for every dollar that goes from a casino into racing, there are $5 or $10 that come back in a variety of ways. This is not a losing proposition.”
He didn’t hide his outrage about the recent actions of the state government. “I’m angry,” he said. “After waiting 10 years for a contract from the State of New York, now we’re talking about pulling money that was contractually agreed to for the benefit of Thoroughbred racing, and the community, and the jobs.”
“Governments need to realize,” added Romans, “that it is working. They piggyback on us and then try to kill us once they got here. I just hope that the State of New York realizes what New York racing means, not just to New York, but to the entire country. The way New York goes is the way racing around the country goes.”
On opening day, Romans will saddle three horses, including Brown Eyes Blue in the Grade III Schuylerville. Napravnik is named to ride in eight races; one of her mounts is favored Jackson Bend in the Grade 3 James Marvin, so even though Muzikar’s work takes place behind the scenes, the results of his efforts are evident on the opening day card. Saratogian readers can look forward to Veitch’s reporting and opinions through the meet and beyond. All four panelists look forward to the meet with more anticipation than dread.
“There are going to be superstars every day and there are going to be horses making a name for themselves,” said Romans. “That’s why we bring them here. That’s why everybody who loves horse racing focuses on Saratoga at this time of year.”