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December 14, 2018

The Feature Race

Plus my take on the Horse of the Year debate and Santa Anita’s new wager

By: Jonathan Stettin



At the very least, on just about every weekend day of racing the “major” racetracks had a feature race. This was almost always a stake, often a graded stake, and was carded towards the end of the program. In New York, way back when, it was the seventh race of nine but later on moved to the eighth of nine, or customarily the next to last race. This gave the racing fans, and bettors alike, something to look forward to.

Horse racing is a fantastic sport to view live. It is exciting, competitive and features both phenomenal equine and human athletes. The top horses and riders who competed at these high level meets developed strong followings and people came not only to wager but to see them compete.

Along with a changing and evolving world, the Sport of Kings has changed. The history and traditions of the game are evaporating or being brushed aside. I’m all for change for the better. For the worse not so much.

Today the feature races, for the most part, have been combined into what we now call super Saturdays. I was middle of the road on this concept as it developed. I was initially against moving the Metropolitan Mile from Memorial Day to Belmont Stakes Saturday. I’ll admit on the first Saturday they ran it that way I loved the card and thought I saw the light. I was wrong.

While these super days are great when we run them, they leave a sour wake for days and even weeks to follow. The Sunday feature, often a stake, is now usually an optional claiming race if we are lucky. For example, last Sunday three major tracks ran the following feature races:

Aqueduct, a starter allowance race for horses who previously ran for a claiming price of $16,000.

Gulfstream Park- Claiming $16,000 and have never won three races.

Los Alamitos- California breds which have never won three races other than maiden, claiming, or starter, or which have never won two races or a claiming price of $20,000.

Obviously, racing secretaries have to get creative to fill races. Back in the day conditioned allowance races would fill without all these innovations to the condition book. Today we have to accept these newer types of races, but do we really have to cram the stakes into the big days and leave a void for up to weeks following? Is this the way to get people coming to the races, or have tracks folded their hands? Many may not mind the lack of a stake most days. However, I think history shows the interest and excitement they generate, and that spacing out as opposed to cramming it in looks more like a recipe for growth. The competition and athletes are our strengths, we need to show them off more not less, and stakes do that.

So there is a horse of the year debate. I think the Eclipse awards have lost luster and significance due to some shall we say, weak voting. Nonetheless, people are talking and voicing their opinions. It comes down to Justify and Accelerate. I found it on the border of silly when Bob Baffert and John Sadler were interviewed about whom they thought deserved it. Seriously. Bob likes Justify, and John likes Accelerate. What a surprise. Did we really have to ask that?

I am with Bob on this one. John Sadler brought out a great point in that Accelerate was good enough to get him his first Breeders’ Cup in over 40 tries, but that isn’t enough. Accelerate had a great year, a championship year for sure. I’m not arguing who I think would handle who on the racetrack. That’s a different discussion and will always be subjective. The Triple Crown is one of the toughest things in all sports to accomplish, not just the Sport of Kings but all of sports. Add doing so without racing at two, which broke a very old streak that goes back to Apollo, and you have to give the nod to Justify. Historically, there are so few Triple Crown winners for a very good reason. Sadler did a fantastic job and plotted a great course, and they executed beautifully. They just did it in a Triple Crown year. History is history. Sure Justify retired sooner than we would have liked. He still won the Triple Crown. It was but a few years back when all the talk was to change the sequence, it is too hard. We won’t see another one. It is hard indeed. Horse of the Year hard.

Santa Anita has come up with a new Roulette wager. Kudos for trying but this sounds like a silly bet to me. Apparently, they will group horses into three color categories, red, black, and green. You bet a separate win pool on the color and thus the horses in that group, and if one of those wins so do you. We’ll see I guess.