The 2008 NSA season, which came to a close Saturday with the inaugural Palm Beach race meeting, set new highs in total and average purses. Total purses reached a record $5,359,100, up $1,455 from last year, while the average purse of $27,483 also broke new ground, topping last year's mark of $26,655.
"Overall I was very happy with how the season went," said Bill Gallo, the NSA's director of racing. "Palm Beach was a great conclusion to a big year. We set an all-time purse record for the second year in a row and reaching that plateau was very meaningful. It says we have a very bright future and that's something to be excited about."
NSA purses topped the $5-million mark for the third time in the last four years. While the robust 2008 numbers are a source of pride, Gallo received the greatest satisfaction in the racing itself.
"To me the most rewarding part — and what I'm most happy with — is the racing product overall. We were able to give horsemen a few more opportunities as well as stretching the season out a little bit. It just goes to show that if you put races together in proper way and put on a good showing the better off you will be," Gallo said. "Filling the races at Saratoga was a highlight for sure. We take great pride in putting on best races we can, but entering Saratoga filling the races were a challenge with the amount of horses we had. So at the end you ask yourself, ‘Was it good?' And we can safely say, ‘Yes, it was.' For our sport, the more exposure we get, then the more possibilities for new race meets to crop up occur. That's where we are most effective. People forget we are a regulatory body, but at the same time I feel we do a great job of putting out a good racing product."
The NSA sanctioned 195 individual races in 2008, down six from 2007. The loss of the Little Everglades and Queen’s Cup meets in the spring and the cancellation of three races at Shawan Downs in September due to heavy rain were compensated by the addition of new venues, as Kentucky Downs and the Palm Beach Steeplechase helped pick up the slack in the fall.
Steeplechasers returned to Kentucky Downs for the first time since 2000, taking part in the $500,000 Kentucky Cup Turf Festival on Opening Day. Two jump races offering $75,000 in purses were run on that Sept. 13 card, including the $50,000 Belle Meade Stakes. Gallo enjoyed the sport's revival at the all-turf track and has already scheduled a return trip for next year.
"It was good to get back to Kentucky Downs after being away for so long, and that was another day where we put out a good product and the races went well," he said. "We have a good relationship with management and we're already booked to open their festival turf season next year on September 12."
Palm Beach reappeared on the NSA calendar after an even longer absence. The NSA circuit last ventured to the South Florida locale in 1985, when the meet opened the season with four races totaling $50,000. Things grew considerably this time around, as Palm Beach closed out the calendar with five races totalling $180,000.
"Palm Beach was a magnificent ending to the season. It was a beautiful racecourse and the amenities were great, so we were very happy with the racing," Gallo said. "It was pretty interesting to see it all happen and know that though it was something that was created at the start of the season it ran so smoothly. I think everyone down there had a very good time and the event was well received. There's even talk of a spring meet next year, though that's still to be determined."
The 2009 schedule will kick off at Aiken, S.C., Gallo noted, and other developments are in the works this winter as he and NSA chief executive Lou Raffetto look to build on the successful framework laid down this season.
"Lou Raffetto and I have spent hours looking at attainable goals, including increasing racing opportunities. Though purses are very important horsemen seem to be more concerned with opportunities than with purses. There's a lot to look forward to in the future, from racetrack opportunities to potential for simulcast wagering. And even though the economy is difficult shape right now these are attainable goals," Gallo said. "We've already rekindled the idea of running a hunt meet at Monmouth Park, a return to Tanglewood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in May is also in the works and Charleston in November is being discussed, though the date is not set in stone. We're obviously looking forward to getting started in 2009."