The Inside Rail

Bas Nicholl called me last week. The longtime assistant trainer for D. Wayne Lukas has called me twice before. Once, Nicholl called to thank me for leading the Travers feature with Will Take Charge and him and once when we misquoted Nicholl in Here & There. One out of two ain’t bad.

 This time, Nicholl had an idea. It was prompted by last week’s column I wrote about ideas to improve Thoroughbred racing, everything from better training facilities to whip use to uniform entry days. Well, Nicholl had an idea. 

“Are you taking suggestions?” he asked.

I’m not the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (www.racingthinktank.com), but I quickly said, “Of course,” picked up a pen and started taking notes on the back of that day’s Special. 

“How about a second wire at Saratoga?” Nicholl said. “You can only run 7 furlongs and a mile and an eighth on the dirt here, there’s a chasm of difference between the two. They do it at Keeneland, they do it at Oaklawn. They’re having trouble filling races, this would give them more options.”

We chatted about the concept, one I’ve never actually heard before, for a little more than four minutes, kicking around good points and bad points. We didn’t come up with many of the latter. 

In the ever-changing world of Thoroughbred racing, the Saratoga product has changed significantly over the years. More turf races have created more turf horses, or at least horses that run on the turf. More turf sprints (remember when there were none?), have created more turf sprinters. Saratoga has more racing days, but that was so long ago we sometimes forget. More races on each card further tax the horse population. And those are just some of the changes. 

Now, think about a second wire. Basically it would mean adding a finish line at the eighth pole for certain races. A red light signifies which wire is used for which races, just like they do at other tracks. Break at the wire and finish at the eighth pole, you have a mile dirt race. There used to be the mile chute on the turn, which provided the mile option, but that’s been gone a long time. 

Positives?

The most important and simple benefit is to offer horses different distances – 1 mile, 1 1/16 miles. As Nicholl said, it’s a chasm between 7 furlongs and 9 furlongs. Here’s a way to bridge that chasm. 

It would open the doors for 2-year-olds to go a route of ground on the dirt. Instead of running stamina-laden 2-year-olds on the turf, trainers could have the option of running them a mile on the dirt. 

It would give one-turn milers from Belmont a legitimate spot to compete at Saratoga. 

It would give the fans a new, fresh look. The fans at the eighth pole would get to see the finish of a race up close and personal. Think about sitting in the same reserved seat your whole life. You’ve seen every race a furlong from home. Now once a day, you’ll see one at the finish.

It would allow for more starts in front of the crowd, right at the wire, instead of all the way on the other side. 

It would offer another distance in off-the-turf races, instead of forcing horses to sprint or route, they have another option. Some turf horses can get a mile on a sloppy track but can’t possiblyw labor through 1 1/8 miles.

It would allow for two similar stakes to be run at two different distances. The Whitney at 1 mile and the Woodward at 1 1/8 miles? Of course, I’m old-school and would like to see the Whitney at 1 1/8 miles and the Woodward at 1 1/4 miles, but that’s not happening. 

Negatives? 

It might lessen the 9-furlong dirt races and hurt the classic dirt stayers, who want to go 9 furlongs on the dirt. Given an option of going a mile or 1 1/16 miles, would trainers abandon the 1 1/8 miles, further marginalizing and eroding the importance of distance horses? Possibly.

It might diminish the drama of the 7-furlong races. Would a true miler skip the 7-furlong stakes to wait for a mile race? The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile has certainly diminished the drama of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

It might confuse the fans. Oh, give them credit. They’ll figure it out. 

It might – will – make photographers walk an extra furlong. 

It would change tradition. Well, tradition has been broken at Saratoga with the advent of turf sprints, the addition of stakes such as the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Woodward and others, the dress code in the clubhouse, the abandonment of horses taking a full turn in the paddock for stakes, 11 hurdles in a jump race, and on and on. 

Wednesday morning, I asked my go-to-sounding-board, Bill Mott. 

“It’s something to think about,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. 

And that’s always a good place to start when it comes to ideas.