Panza at helm for second Saratoga season

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Martin Panza is in the midst of his second season as the head of the racing department at Saratoga Race Course. He’s wearing multiple hats at the current meeting, in his main role as senior vice president of racing operations and also in the job where his roots are, as racing secretary.

He also played a key role in reconfiguring the Saratoga stakes schedule for 2014 and even more in 2015.

The decision to bulk up some of the Saturday programs – mainly the Travers Stakes and Whitney Invitational cards by lumping several major graded stakes onto single days were welcomed by some and criticized by others. Panza feels the strategy can help generate fan interest throughout the country and he talked about the decision, and what it might take to get American Pharoah to next month’s Travers, with The Saratoga Special’s Tom Law in advance of Opening Day.

The Saratoga Special: Gearing up for your second season at Saratoga. What surprised you about last year here, if anything?

Martin Panza: “Certainly last year it met or exceeded expectations. This is pretty powerful. It’s the only meet still running six days a week. We’re running pretty much 10 races a day. Nobody in America comes close to that. For the most part, knock on wood, we’re able to do it. Even with the foal crop dropping to an all-time low. It’s a little bit nerve wracking, but it’s pleasant to be somewhere you can make the better races. And you can make allowance races and especially on Saturdays, ‘let’s put a really good card out there every Saturday,’ where other times of the year or at other tracks you’d struggle to do that. You just don’t have the inventory. Up here we do, so that’s pretty special.”

The Special: Coming off last year what are some specific areas you felt needed improvement?

MP: “There’s tremendous growth potential here. We handle so much money on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays. I just look, as I wrote the book this year for the first time, you want to make Friday, Saturday, Sunday cards good. We handle a lot of money on those days. There’s no way you can make every day special. But you try to give numbers and on those days, when you know there’s going to be a lot of people there, present the best cards we can. That’s what I learned from last year. Wow, every Saturday we handle between $22 and $30 million. Those are powerful days. It might take me two weeks to handle that at Aqueduct. You really want to make sure, if you can, don’t mess those days up. Sometimes easier said than done.

“Fridays are strong and Sundays are strong. Fridays are almost as strong as our Sundays. So, OK, as we write books we look at how can we, on a day-to-day basis, deliver on those days?”

The Special: There are some significant changes to the stakes schedule this year, mainly with the bulked up Saturday cards. Why was this done?

MP: “The stakes schedule is a little different matter. I see potential to grow our big days even larger. Obviously with Travers Day this year we’ve taken that step. I think every weekend has its separate identity, whether it’s Alabama, Fourstardave, Woodward, whatever. We’ve certainly moved to make Travers Day a little bit stronger. People will say, ‘look you have 48,000 every Travers, so why would you do that?’ Well, we charge a simulcast rate for the rest of the country and 85 percent of our money is bet out there, not here. By enhancing Travers Day it allows us to raise that rate and say, ‘listen guys, we’re providing a lot of product for you. You’re going to pay us more money on that day.’ That means NYRA makes more money and the horsemen make more money. If we can grow Travers Day into what I call a national day, it helps all the other tracks in America, too.

“I came from California and we would have the Pacific Classic on Sunday and Travers was on Saturday. We would watch the Travers, but it wasn’t like ‘oh it’s Travers Day we’ve got to go to the track today and play Saratoga’s card.’ It was more like, ‘hey Sunday is Pacific Classic and we’re going to watch that card and by the way, who won the Travers?’ In talking with the guys at Del Mar they moved the Pacific Classic off that weekend. Now the Travers commands that weekend and we’ve made it a much bigger day. The goal is to build it into a national day where we can handle, $60, $70, $80 million. I don’t know if that happens overnight, but we’re going to try. I know this, if we keep doing what we were doing it doesn’t work. Eventually it’s like paper cuts, you’re just slowly (eroding). We’ll try and take a little risk. People want to criticize and that’s fine, but you never gain anything if you’re not afraid to take some risk.”

The Special: Any concern that there’s too much of the big-day thinking?

MP: “This is an awesome place. It’s an awesome town. They grasp racing and if I can take that day from a $39 million day and make it a $50 million day, it’s a good thing for everybody. If we can grow it to $60 or $70 million down the road, that’s the goal. Same thing for Whitney Day. That’s still very much in development. There’s tremendous potential. This year’s Whitney is going to be a pretty good race. I see room to grow that day higher. That would give us an anchor at the start of the meet and the Travers and Woodward at the end. There’s room for growth here, but we have to understand what the growth is. On a day like Travers, yes we already have 48,000 people here. Maybe it gets to 53 or 54 before we’re just sold out but there’s also the rest of the country. How do we get them to really pay attention to that day.

“If I can get American Pharoah to come for the Travers I know that every hotel room in this city will be sold out for at least three or four nights. That’s great for the community, the city, the restaurants and certainly the track. We want to create days like that where basically people say, ‘hey, we’ve got to be there for that weekend.’ I’m not saying the Travers hasn’t always been a special day, but I was from California and I wasn’t like, ‘gee I’ve got to go to the Travers.’ If we can grow it into a mini Breeders’ Cup-type day, it may start to get people from around the country saying ‘let’s go up there for that weekend, look at all these Grade 1 races, this is special.’ That’s what we trying to accomplish. If they won’t come here will they at least watch the entire day and wager?”

The Special: One common criticism is that adding a historic stakes, say like the Personal Ensign, to the Travers card somehow takes away the prestige. What do you think?

MP: “So the Personal Ensign was a five- or six-horse field run on Friday and it was in the mud, it handled x amount of dollars last year. It will handle a lot more money on a Saturday. We moved the state-bred day to Friday. We moved the Forego off Woodward Day to Travers Day. Woodward Day is still going to be a huge day. I know on closing weekend, whatever race we write there’s 14 entries in the race because it’s closing weekend. We’re going to have big fields on Woodward Day. The Forego has shifted and we’ve moved another stakes to that day. We’re still going to have a stakes every day here. We’re still going to have, on the weekends, good cards. Even down at Belmont, people say, ‘oh my God there’s not a graded stakes today.’ Well, fine, you want me to put a Group 3 there with six horses? Is that what’s driving you to come to the track today? Probably not. I hear what they’re saying, but I’ve also been doing this for 30 years and I know that having a graded stakes every Saturday and Sunday doesn’t mean anything. We’re still trending this way (points down). You’ve got to do something to change that trend. I may not have the right answer, but I’m trying to do something different. I know if I left it the way it was the trend is still going downward. It’s not working. The game needs to reinvent itself and we need to find a way to attract new fans and new people. To me the bigger days are the way to do it.

“This meet, Del Mar’s meet and maybe Keeneland are a little bit different. I don’t think we’ve tinkered that much, moved the Forego, moved the Sword Dancer. For Whitney Day I think the Waya was on a Sunday, we moved it to a Saturday. The Vanderbilt now comes before the Whitney but there’s three stakes on Jim Dandy Day. We run the financial analysis so we track it. I’m not going to do something that’s going to cost us money. Everything we do is to try and, from a handle standpoint, make more money for NYRA and make more money for the horsemen. So if something doesn’t work we’re going to adjust that. If Travers Day we only handle 39 million again, it didn’t work. I made a mistake and I’ll be the first guy to say, ‘gee we need to tweak that.’ I know, from Belmont Stakes Day, I’ve been here two years and I’ve been fortunate to be involved in two possibilities for a Triple Crown and a Triple Crown. But at the end of the day in the two years we’ve handle 135 million and 153 million. Those are two largest days in New York racing ever. To me, it works.

“I’m fully aware of American Pharoah and California Chrome, but there was Seattle Slew and Affirmed and Alydar. Two years ago the old record was $110 million. We beat it by $43 million. It wasn’t even really close. It works and I think Travers Day it will work. If we get good weather, knock on wood, and whether American Pharoah comes or not it’s still going to be a great day of racing. We’ll do everything we can to get him to come. If he comes it makes my job even easier. That’s what it’s designed to do. It’s designed to get the best horses to come and be part of that day.”

The Special: What’s it going to take to get Bob Baffert to run American Pharoah in the Travers?

MP: “I’ve known Bob a long time and I’m not going to call him every day. He’s under a lot of pressure. There’s a Triple Crown winner in his barn and every morning he comes in it’s, ‘is he OK?’ People can’t understand the pressure sitting on him every day. He knows we want him to come and he’s told us, ‘Look, I need to do what’s right by the horse. We’re running in the Haskell and after that race we’ll certainly look at what the next step is.’ If the horse is doing well I think we have a pretty good shot.”

The Special: There were some comments about the Haskell and what other races might be in store for American Pharoah, including possibly the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby.

MP: “I’m not sure he could do the Pennsylvania Derby as well. It’s hard to say. Bob’s going to do what’s right by the horse. He’s a Hall of Fame trainer and has been doing it a long time. The horse is pretty amazing. If the horse is doing well I think Bob will run. If he doesn’t feel he’s quite right I guess he wouldn’t. We’ll wait and see. I can’t speak for them I can just say we’ve been in touch with them and they are pretty positive. In fairness they’ve got a race to run on August 2 and we have to wait until that happens.”

– Check out Sunday’s edition of The Saratoga Special for Part 2. Digital edition presented by by Keeneland.