Martin Panza cracked up when it was suggested that perhaps a small part of him was curious to see how Belmont Stakes Day would’ve performed without a Triple Crown on the line.
“No,” he said emphatically, with a laugh.
Gift horse, mouth, etc.
Hired by the New York Racing Association this winter, Panza brings serious racing heft to upper management at NYRA, which has a chairman of the board and a president, albeit very intelligent people, who each admit to a lack of racing knowledge.
All-time record handle on Belmont Day was the equivalent of hitting a game-winning grand slam in your first game at the home stadium after having been traded.
Panza filled NYRA’s newly created position of senior vice president of racing operations, and wasted no time putting his fingerprints on how things will be done around here now.
He replaced P.J. Campo, who took a job with the Stronach Group in November and moved to Gulfstream Park.
Panza has two racing secretaries to help write the condition books and fill races, Frank Gabriel, whose jursidictions are Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park, and Dan Eidson (Aqueduct).
We’re less than three weeks away from opening day of Saratoga (can you believe it? Yes. Yes, you can), and Panza is encouraged by the success of Belmont Day after he took some chances and profoundly altered that weekend’s lineup.
His big-event concepts will carry over to Saratoga, on Whitney and Travers days, but there will also be more subtle changes on a daily basis from the Campo days that have been designed to improve the overall quality of racing at the Spa.
Panza has been an executive at the big California tracks for over 20 years, most recently at Hollywood Park, which closed last year and is being demolished this year to make way for housing.
Known for creative innovations like the American Oaks, he pointed to a reduction from six days a week to five that significantly improved the racing at Del Mar.
He wasn’t suggesting that Saratoga go to five days, but used Del Mar as an example of how it’s possible to make something that’s already great better.
“You weren’t coming and betting on a four-horse or five-horse field,” Panza said at the annual NYRA press conference at the Fasig-Tipton pavilion. “It’s going to happen sometimes. It pains me inside, and it pains Frank Gabriel and the rest of us to see a four-horse field.
“So you try to get away from that, help field size, and get a better experience for the day that you can actually bet every race and not say, ‘God, I’m not betting that.’ ”
One way to achieve that, he believes, is to cut back on the number of races.
Post times have been established for the entire 40-day meet, with the last post scheduled for 5:15 Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 5:48 on Fridays and some Sundays, and 6:18 on Saturdays and some Sundays. Whitney Day will have 11 races with a final post of 6:18. and Travers will have 13 with a final post 6:20.
Panza’s aim is to not bleed the horse population dry in the name of squeezing every penny of handle out of a long card. He believes that, with fewer races, bigger fields and better overall quality of racing, handle will take care of itself, anyway, and that the bettors and fans will have a more fun and less exhausting day at the races.
“We were at Breeders’ Cup last year at Santa Anita, and I brought a friend of mine who’s a money manager and a very successful person, and we were there for seven hours,” Panza said. “He said this is just too long. He said he’d come for four, but seven is just too long a day.”
His stakes-stacking experiment on Belmont Day was a home run, as NYRA raked in over $150 million in handle.
Behind the scenes, NYRA was in a position to demand higher simulcast fees from other tracks and betting outlets that wanted to reap the benefit of a blockbuster card. He expects to do that for the Whitney and Travers, too.
“Let’s say that there was no Triple Crown. Can we do 110, 115 [million]? I hope so,” he said. “In the past, some years we would sit in the racing office at Hollywood Park, and if there wasn’t a Triple Crown on the line . . . ‘Ahh, when’s the Belmont? Half an hour, OK, flip it on.’
“The rest of the card, the maiden New York-bred or the 20 claimer, you don’t even watch. Now, my guys in the office in California are like, ‘Who do you like in the Brooklyn?’ ”
Speaking of California, Panza was able to coax Beholder cross-country, through a beefed-up purse, to run against Close Hatches and Princess of Sylmar in the Ogden Phipps on Belmont Day.
He wants the Whitney, cranked up to $1.5 million, to have the same impact, making it perhaps even the most important race for older horses on the North American calendar, short of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Panza has been to Saratoga a few times as a fan, but running the place is an entirely different animal.
Instead of quick fixes, he expects the changes he’s making to take a few years to come to full fruition.
Next weekend’s new 3-year-old turf stakes at Belmont, for instance, could become a bridge to the comparable stakes at Saratoga, which are sort of left high and dry without a full-fledged program in New York to support them.
“I’m honored to have this responsibility,” he said. “It’s a tremendous chance to grow Saratoga into something larger next season or two. We’ll create these super-days of racing and grow the Travers and Whitney, and as you do that, it helps feed the rest of the meet.”