SARATOGA SPRINGS — In sports, they say the real work gets done when nobody’s around to watch.
So if we wanted to see Essential Quality in a serious workout aimed at impactful race conditioning, and not just a casual daily gallop to maintain fitness, we needed to be at the track when the day was still young. This isn’t Caroline Street; training hours begin at 5:30 a.m. around here.
All of the hard labor Essential Quality did in the quiet time since he arrived at Saratoga Race Course in early July paid off in a big way last weekend, when he won the $1.25 million Travers Stakes in front of an announced crowd of 44,507.
Among them was Kathy Hochul, a mere five days into her term as the newly sworn-in Governor of New York State, conspicuous by her presence, especially on the heels of Andrew Cuomo’s tenure and resignation.
We’re all well familiar by now with the trappings, orchestration and motivation of a political photo op, and this one checked many of those boxes (including an actual box seat). No matter how well-intentioned and productive, they are, by design, self-serving to some degree.
It had to be encouraging, though, for racing fans to see the top government official act like their sport matters and is worthy of her attention.
What should be even more encouraging, though, to those who (rightfully so or not) believed that Cuomo was at least ambivalent or neglectful toward horse racing and maybe even antagonistic (“Cuomo hates racing, just like his father did”) is that then-Lieutenant Gov. Hochul made an unpublicized tour of Saratoga Race Course just four weeks earlier that demonstrated a level of engagement well beyond soaking in Travers Day for an hour and a half.
During that visit, on a July 27 Tuesday dark day when the only people around were those who work with the horses all day, every day, Hochul was introduced to the behind-the-scenes aspects of track life and the engine that makes the sport a significant part of the state economy.
The New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga upstate and Belmont Park and Aqueduct downstate, certainly welcomed the opportunity to show her around.
“She just wanted to see everything that happens here at the track and the backstretch, which was such a positive message right out of the chute,” NYRA senior director of government affairs Jeff Cannizzo said. “She understood the dynamics of our sport, the employment of our sport and how far-reaching it was. We did a tour of the backstretch, saw a lot of faces, saw the diversity, saw the number of people that are back there working every day.
“It spun around and we visited a few barns, stopped and saw the new Faith House that we just built for the children of the backstretch, the Whitney Pavilion and what goes on there all summer in terms of how the backstretch community is using it and being cared for, and the meals that are done there and the different services, so it really was a tour of duty on the backstretch to see the community aspect of what we’re doing.”
Cannizzo was executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, Inc. since 2008 before taking the newly created NYRA position in December.
His job now is to lobby on NYRA’s behalf in Albany.
Sometimes you get lucky and Albany comes to you.
Hochul happened to be in the area on July 27, and Cannizzo said her staff cold-called NYRA about a visit, even though there was no racing that day.
After touring the backstretch, Cannizzo showed Hochul the track itself, where racing has taken place since 1864, after one short meet in 1863 on the other side of Union Avenue.
“It was somewhat surreal, because on a dark day early in the meet it was vacant,” Cannizzo said. “The moral of the story was that we have such a great attendance all summer, and what it’s turned into from a tourism perspective for the town and the city and the Capital Region was really important for her to see and certainly something the she recognized right from the get-go.
“She made it very clear and sent a message right from the start that she’s interested in our industry and recognizes what we do for the economy and the 19,000 jobs we provide across the state of New York.”
The 19,000 number — along with over $3 billion in annual economic impact that NYRA often cites — comes from a 2018 report by the American Horse Council, which advocates for the sport in Washington, D.C.
It’s worth noting that, in spite of how Cuomo’s position toward racing has been perceived by many, NYRA has been able to complete multiple capital projects aimed at improving and enhancing their facilities in recent years, with the requisite blessing of the state.
It’s easy for racing people, who are involved in a sport that increasingly takes a back seat to mainstream sports and the ever-expanding world of legalized gambling, to get defensive. So when the New York State governor doesn’t show up at Belmont for a Triple Crown bid, or at Saratoga for a Travers, they notice.
No surprise that they noticed when Hochul was there last Saturday.
Cannizzo served as chaperone and tour guide once again, and the first hurdle was to get the governor, who arrived at the track at 5 p.m., from the 1863 Club to her seat in time for the 5:25 Sword Dancer.
“I was worried that we wouldn’t make it to the box area from the club in that 25-minute period, because she literally shook many hands, stopped for every single person that wanted to address her in that walkway, acknowledged a lot of faces and they acknowledged her,” Cannizzo said.
“The reception was remarkable. There was a lot of support from people who were here as general fans. We checked out the paddock, so she got to experience that up and close. It was her interest and her request to see what happens down there in the paddock that she heard so much about, and it was pretty neat. She wanted to get as close as possible to some of the horses in the race and some of the connections. We talked about things, from horse equipment to training regimen to the people involved and how many people on a daily basis are actually caring for and touching horses.”
Then the main event rolled around, and Midnight Bourbon ran his guts out in the Travers, but Essential Quality was just a little bit better and won by a neck, much to the delight of the huge crowd.
I was at my usual perch on the rail in the winner’s circle to watch the race, and it was funny to hear a media production person phone in directions from down there up to the governor’s box in order to give the camera what it was looking for.
“Have her looking at a program…”
Presto, two seconds later, Hochul was looking at a program.
Another order from below, and, magically, the facemask came down, briefly.
After Essential Quality won, Hochul, who was here in 2015 to see Triple Crown winner American Pharoah lose the Travers, came down to make the trophy presentation.
“Not too much,” trainer Brad Cox grinned and said of his conversation with the governor. “She said she was a big fan of my horse.”
My enterprising friend Gene Kershner from the Buffalo News — Hochul is from Buffalo — scored a quick quote as everyone filed out of the winner’s enclosure.
“It was fabulous,” Hochul said of the race, in Kershner’s News story. “This is an important industry for the state of New York, nearly 20,000 jobs and it’s a big economic driver for this part of our state.
“I loved being here. It’s a great sport bringing people together. There was so much energy, this is what we want all over the state of New York. People energized to come out and be together, but do it in a smart way.”
“I think it was very reassuring to a lot of people,” Cannizzo said. “Everyone had the same message: Thank you. Thank you for being here.”
It’s still early in the Hochul administration, but they should be even more reassured that she also chose to be here when nobody knew it.