For 40 meets, Larry Robillard of Glens Falls has tried to make it to Saratoga Race Course every day. He arrives early.
He was one of the few on a lazy, hazy Wednesday who paid attention to the steeplechase race leading off the day’s card.
“I just like to watch the race,” he said.
Bet it? No way. But watch? Sure.
Steeplechase racing is credited with saving horse racing in the United States when, in the early 20th century, a wave of Victorian morality led to a ban on gambling. Steeplechase, with its spectacle of obstacles, helped keep an interest in equine sports until the tide turned and gambling was once again legalized.
“People who are in steeplechasing just have a passion for this sport, and I don’t think it’s dependent on parimutuel betting to survive,” said Hope Cooper, director of the National Steeplechase Museum in Camden, South Carolina.
Today, the sport-within-a-sport is considered an oddity, an outlier, an unfamiliar curiosity widely viewed as not worthy of a bet, though it remains huge in places such as England and Ireland. The handle for a steeplechase race at Saratoga Race Course is on average 40 percent of what is wagered for a typical thoroughbred race.
This season, steeplechase racing is exiled to the precard — 12:25 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, ahead of the traditional 1 p.m. post time for racing. Although quarantined, Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, said three more steeplechase races will be run this season than in 2013.
“Steeplechase racing has always been part of the tradition up here,” Panza said. “It’s part of Saratoga and the fabric.”
Bill Gallo, director of racing for the National Steeplechase Association, calls the shift “an interesting strategic maneuver” that he thinks will work.
“We certainly support it; it gives us three more races,” Gallo said. “Our quality of races for those 12 races is premier.”
Although optimistic, Gallo said the move before the traditional 1 p.m. start could work either way: The Wednesday-Thursday races could be ignored by a public accustomed to a set start time, or steeplechase could be viewed as a value-added racing experience.
“It isolates us to the point it might get us some attention,” Gallo said.
Panza said the move of races before the long-recognized start of a racing day complements NYRA’s initiative to get fans in and out of the track in less time. A shorter day has also been cited as a by-product of fewer races overall this year in an effort to improve the quality of the fields.
“We looked at it as a time issue,” Panza said. “On a Wednesday and Thursday, let’s get people out of the races in a timely fashion and into town so they can eat dinner and enjoy the Saratoga community.
“If you want to come early and see (steeplechase races), that’s great. If not, the normal racing starts at 1 o’clock. So for consistency throughout the meet, 1 o’clock is when the thoroughbreds will start racing.”
Panza said there was no consideration given to doing away with steeplechase racing at Saratoga, despite its relative lack of popularity among bettors compared to other races.
“Not everything is about money,” Panza said. “We’re an entertainment company, as well. Steeplechase racing is a form of entertainment, part of equine performance. It’s been such a big tradition up here, and I don’t want to see tradition stop here. It just makes the [Saratoga meet] what it is.”
That doesn’t mean steeplechase’s future in Saratoga doesn’t face hurdles, though.
“We are trying to help them and their association,” Panza said, “and we’ll give it a shot this year and see how it works, and we’ll re-evaluate it after the meet.”