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Horse walking through

An exercise rider takes a horse from trainer H. James Bond on the horse path toward the paddock at Saratoga Race Course on Wednesday. The 151st thoroughbred meeting begins on Thursday.

All eyes turn to Saratoga Race Course every year, so that’s not new. The scrutiny this year’s 151st thoroughbred meet will be under, however, will be heavier, thanks to the national outcry from the death of 30 horses during Santa Anita’s recently concluded winter/spring meeting.

Thirty equine deaths at a minor track over six months might not get the same attention, but at “The Great Race Place” that has hosted multiple Breeders’ Cups? Add that to racetrack management’s questionable handling of the problem, and a lot more people had an opinion and renewed interest in equine safety.

In early June, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Martha McSally, R-AZ, introduced the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2019 as a bill to the Senate. It is the same bill as the one introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Paul Tonko, D-NY, and Andy Barr, R-KY, but slightly stricter in one aspect.

Both bills would create a private, independent horse racing anti-doping authority responsible for developing and administering a nationwide ant-doping and medication control program.

With horse racing currently having no governing body and 38 separate jurisdictions, it would create a set of uniform anti-doping rules that would spell out permitted and prohibited substances and methods.

Given the current political climate and backlog of bills in the Senate, it is not likely to be voted upon soon, but it adds to the attention being paid to racehorses.

To paraphrase Billy Joel’s song, Saratoga didn’t start the fire, but it’s always burning.

If there is a consolation, it’s that the New York Racing Association has been through some of this scrutiny before. In the winter of 2012, Aqueduct suffered a high number of breakdowns. It quickly created the New York Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety and implemented a number of new practices and policies.

Again, at the 2017 Saratoga meet, there were calls to address equine safety when seven horses died from the time the Oklahoma Training Track opened in April to the end of July. That number ebbed slightly by the time the meet concluded, and NYRA again examined all its surfaces and circumstances.

Switch to five days

One of the changes to this year’s Saratoga meet may have an added benefit to equine physical stress, as the meet reduces from its normal running six days a week down to five.

After the opening extended weekend from Thursday through Sunday, the meet will run Wednesdays through Sundays, with the exception of the meet’s last day, Labor Day. Saratoga had been the last meet to run six days per week. Opening a week earlier this year, it will still be 40 days of racing.

The move was initially made to accommodate the construction of the New York Islanders’ new arena on the grounds of Belmont Park, which hosts the spring/summer meeting before Saratoga, however delays to that have been incurred.

Horsemen have long acknowledged that six days of racing per week was taxing on them, their staffs and the horses. Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito thinks this change will be for the better.

“I say Saratoga is the last remaining truth in racing,” Zito said, “and now it’s obvious. The only thing you don’t want to see is the product being debilitated.”

Zito said the five-day race week should help the racing office fill the races.

“Six days is very difficult, he said. “Five days, they should have no problem because Saratoga is still the mecca. People still run their horses, they ship in to run their horses. Races are still hard to fill, don’t get me wrong, but five days are better than six.”

NYRA officials have said they are using this year’s switch to five days as a barometer, and aren’t committed to anything for 2020 and beyond, but it is hard to imagine going back to six given an ongoing national foal shortage.

Judging by the first two days’ entries, Zito is right about races filling easily. Including main-track-only entries, there are 113 horses entered for 10 races Thursday and 109 for 10 races Friday.

Zito said the atmosphere throughout Saratoga is what separates it from anyplace else.

“This is the only place — maybe Keeneland, Del Mar does a good job they say — there is fan participation other than the big days. Saratoga is probably the last one where I know people are here for the meet. They may go away for a few days to wherever their homes are, but they’re here for the meet.”

Big physical change

The most physically obvious change to this year’s meet is the addition of the three-level, climate-controlled 1863 Club where the formerly tented At The Rail Pavilion was at the head of the clubhouse turn. The facility will have a spacious buffet restaurant on the first floor, event space on the second floor and luxury suites on the third floor.

Costs for the first floor range from $130 to $350 (including buffet, admission, program, tax and gratuity). Costs for the second floor, for parties of up to 100, range from $11,000 to $27,500, not including a mandatory food-and-beverage package that costs from $45-$125 per person. The luxury boxes cost between $5,400 and $18,000, though some individual suite tickets are available for certain dates. They cost $150 and include admission, program, four-hour open bar and a “Game Day” menu.

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Follow Will Springstead on Twitter @WSpringsteadPSV.

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