Churchill, Belmont openings bring renewed racing energy

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By whatever means used to measure – the prolonged cold and wet weather in the East and Midwest and the surge of equine fatalities out West – it was a very long winter for horseplayers. 

The openings this week of Belmont Park on Friday and Churchill Downs Saturday bring renewed energy as the spring racing season finally gets underway in full force. 

Belmont Park means the emphasis on turf racing returns to New York, and with it comes a much-needed increase in field sizes and better wagering opportunities. The four turf races drawn for this Friday have field sizes of nine, 11 (including one also-eligible), 12, and 16 (including four also-eligibles).  

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) has already enacted an aggressive “Ship and Win” program offering a shipping stipend and 30 percent purse bonuses for the first two starts at Belmont Park to the connections of horses that made their previous start at Oaklawn Park. 

Belmont Park will also experiment by conducting twilight racing on Thursdays instead of the Friday twilight programs of years past.  Eight of the 10 Thursday cards will have a first post time of 3:05 p.m. Eastern. The exceptions will be Thursday May 2 and Thursday July 4, with first post time on those days tentatively scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET.   

Churchill Downs opens on Saturday with one of their “Downs after Dark” cards and a first post time of 6:00 p.m. Eastern. Last year, Churchill opened its Derby City Casino with a portion of the revenues from its historical horse racing machines designated to enhance purses at the track.  

The success of Derby City Casino has exceeded expectations, and the result is in the numbers. Total purses for the first half of the 38-day spring meet will be up 46 percent over the same dates in 2018. 

The enhanced purse structure at Churchill has not gone unnoticed, as Peter Miller, Mark Glatt, Phil D’Amato, and Doug O’Neill are familiar California-based trainers who will have stables at Churchill Downs this spring. 

Like Belmont Park, Churchill Downs will experiment with twilight racing on Thursdays.  Following its “Thurby” card on May 2 that has a first post of 12:45 p.m. Eastern, each following Thursday through June 27 will have a twilight first post time of 5:00 p.m. ET.   

With Santa Anita announcing last week they will not race on Thursdays through the end of May, Churchill Downs and Belmont Park appear primed to acquire added horseplayers based on the West Coast who are usually in action during that time period. 

Plans are being made at Churchill to offer new wagers on Kentucky Oaks Day May 3 and Kentucky Derby Day May 4. As many as six head-to-head matchups on both the Oaks and Derby cards have been approved. Decisions on what races will offer the head-to-head matchups will be made after the Oaks and Derby day cards are drawn. 

A new $2 Pick Six linking all of the Grade I races on Oaks and Derby Day is in the making. Best of all for horseplayers, the new Pick Six will have a player-friendly 15 percent takeout and will also offer a mandatory payout. 

Weather permitting, both Belmont Park and Churchill Downs appear ready to jump start the spring horse racing calendar. 

Santa Anita cancels Thursday

Santa Anita was scheduled to resume four-day weeks of racing this Thursday, but announced last Friday they have eliminated Thursday racing thru the end of May due to “A shortage of race-ready horses.” 

Santa Anita has approximately 200 empty stalls on the backstretch right now, and that does not included a couple hundred two-year-olds stabled on track and in training that are not yet ready to run.

Last Friday evening Santa Anita announced a $10,000 purse increase on every overnight (non-Stakes) race starting this Friday thru June 2. The funding of the purse increase will be shared equally by The Stronach Group, the owners of Santa Anita, and the Thoroughbred Owners of California.  

Part of the cost will be offset by the nearly $900,000 earmarked for Stakes races that were cancelled when racing was halted in March and also by revenue generated by satellite wagering during the time there was no live racing. 

The immediate impact on the purse increases was minimal, as there are 53 horses entered on this Friday’s card compared to 54 horses that raced last Friday at Santa Anita. 

Stronach open letter 

Frank Stronach, 86, who founded The Stronach Group (TSG) that daughter Belinda now manages and with whom he is involved in a lawsuit over control of the company, ran an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday entitled “An Open Letter From Frank Stronach to All Horse Lovers in the State of California.” 

In a nutshell, Stronach said he will make a statement “about the future of horse racing in California” at a public appearance scheduled Tuesday evening at a hotel in Arcadia close to Santa Anita. 

A statement from The Stronach Group issued late Sunday said it has no involvement with Frank Stronach’s appearance and that he is not involved in running any of the company’s racetracks and does not speak for Santa Anita or TSG. 

More than anything, this is a sad commentary of the current state of affairs for the Stronach family with racing in California caught in the crossfire. 

Lindo Report Play for Gaming Today: Keeneland Thursday Race 7 – Sensitive (No. 4). Honest mare returned from a 10- month layoff and got nailed right near the wire at Fair Grounds March 23. She has proven form on the Keeneland turf, a nice stalking style, and the Brad Cox stable is hot. She should be set for best. 

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About the Author

Jon Lindo

Jon Lindo is a syndicated handicapper, long-time thoroughbred owner, and publisher of the Lindo Report. Jon is also a regular contributor to Race Day Las Vegas Radio show on KSHP 1400 in Las Vegas and Thoroughbred Los Angeles Radio show, heard in Las Vegas at thoroughbredla.com.

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