Talking Horses: Part 2 with Martin Panza

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The second and final installment of a Q&A which began in Saturday’s edition of The Saratoga Special.

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 Special: Back to the weekends and gearing up for the big weekends. Some might see some positives in the changes and the emphasis on the stakes-packed Saturdays that maybe allowance-type horses or maiden races to get a little extra exposure during the weekend and on those big days.

Martin Panza: “You try to add something for every day that gives it some pizzazz for that day. On your bigger days you capture a larger audience. There’s a chance people are saying, ‘gosh, I saw that horse break his maiden by 6 lengths. Wow that was impressive and he’s going to run back in the Hopeful. You know what, on Hopeful day I’m going to pay attention.’ So like you were saying, putting certain races on certain days when you know they’re going to capture a larger audience that they pay attention and they follow that horse. Every Saturday there are 2-year-old maiden races because you’re hoping that one wins by 8 and people are thinking it’s the next Derby horse. There’s a lot to be said for that and you look at the days when we have the biggest attendance and you try to work to it. It doesn’t mean that a Monday or a Thursday it’s going to be the worst card ever, but you maneuver and put certain races on certain days with that in mind. That you’re going to reach the larger audience.”

The Special: You mentioned the foal crop earlier. It’s more than just a hot-button talking topic in the industry it’s a reality. Are you feeling it this year, or did you feel the pinch last year and what’s the outlook going forward?

MP: “We’re all feeling it. It’s simple math. If you go back pre-2008, like 2006, 2007, we had about 36,000 foals a year. We work in about four-year increments. So 2-year-old to about 5-year-old roughly. Four years of 36,000 and you’re dealing with 144,000 horses. You take four years of 21,000 and you’re dealing with 84,000 horses. That’s 60,000 less. It’s just simple mathematics. There’s not enough horses to go around. That’s why you see Monmouth running three days a week, you see Laurel running three days a week, Gulfstream running four days a week. Poor Arlington Park I saw like Saturday’s card they’ve got eight races and like 56 horses running. Del Mar used to be six days a week, they’re running five. Weekdays they only run eight races. We’re the only circuit that has not shrunk yet. We’re still six days here, 10 races. Belmont we’re still five days a week. Yes it has affected us. What we have going for us is the higher purse money. That has probably sheltered us a little bit. But if there were 36,000 foals a year instead of having eight- or nine-horse fields we’d probably have 10 or 11. It’s simple numbers and it’s a mathematical equation. When you think about it from a trainer’s perspective there’s only 81,000 horses out there over a four-year period and there used to be 146,000, either a lot of trainers are out of business or there are a lot less horses in the barn. There just aren’t the numbers.”

The Special: So fewer races this year?

MP: “No. We’ll probably try to stay around the same. If we can’t fill then certainly maybe you’ll see, Mondays we’re at nine already, maybe Sundays it might be nine or 10 races. Maybe we’ll get rid of one race a week. We’re not really looking to do that at the moment. But certainly if we start to struggle we would. The flip side is if we’re filling well and I’ve got a bunch of extra races, I’d probably run them. Just to let the horsemen and the owners run for the money. That said we don’t need to be running 13 races on a Saturday. We do it Travers Day, but after a while it gets to be too much. It’s too long of a day. At the same time you want to have opportunities for horsemen. I’m a believer that less is more. I’d rather have quality racing with decent field size than give you 12 races and have junk and some of them are six that scratch down to four. There’s times when races need to go. Filly and mare twice other than mile and an eighth on the main track. If you get six in it and it hasn’t gone in four months I’ve got to use it. People say it’s a six-horse field. Yes, but those horses have to run and that’s a category that needs to go because you win that you go to three other than or a stakes.”

The Special: One thing that people don’t mention when they’re griping about the changes are some increases to purses of some of the stakes. Races like the Sword Dancer. Whereas some of the 2-year-old races were kept the same. Do you see that as a reward or incentive to keep older horses in training?

MP: “The Sword Dancer we did just trying to get horses from Europe up here. You don’t really get them here and we’re trying to get the Europeans to send some horses over to Saratoga. It’s good for the sport if we can get them. The 2-year-old races are already the highest purses in the country. They don’t need to go higher. It’s pretty much, 200, 300, 400,000 for 2-year-old sprinters, they’re one-other-thans who just broke their maidens. It’s not like anyone else in America has any larger races than that. One of the problems with our sport as a whole is we’ve shifted a lot of money to 2 and 3-year-old races and we wonder why no one stays around at 4 and 5. We’ve gotten like the Quarter Horses have. All the money is at 2 and 3.

“When you look back in the 50s and 60s, the older horses hung around because that’s where the purse money was. We’ve gotten off that. We’ve been trying in two years. The Met Mile is $1 million, the Whitney is $1.25 million, the Jockey Club Gold Cup is $1 million. The Woodward and Suburban are 500 and 600. There’s a reason to keep older horses in training and to keep them in New York. The Pacific Classic is $1 million, the race at Charles Town at $1.5 million. We’ve got to find ways as an industry to keep the older horses around. You get to the turf you’ve got the Manhattan at $1 million, you’ve got the Arlington Million and you have the Sword Dancer. Once again, how do we help keep horses in training and running at an older age and get people something to shoot for?

“We have purse money here we have a responsibility to the industry, not just New York. The longer the horse is on the racetrack the better chance the public knows who he is. The 2-year-old race he just broke his maiden and doesn’t need to run for $500,000 next. He can do that later. Anytime we add money to a purse there’s usually a specific reason for doing it. We’re either trying to attract horses from a different part of the country or a different part of the world, or we’re trying to grow the day. You have to look at what other tracks are doing and what else exists out there and how you fit into that schedule. Can you attract horses? We look at the analysis and say, ‘did we make money on this? Did it pay off?’ or ‘Hey, it didn’t work. We had a five-horse field and that was stupid.’ At the end of the day you’ve got to give things time. I try to look at it over a four-, five- or six-year period. It’s not fair to judge something on one year. Nobody in business would do that. Nobody running a company would do it. Most have a four-, five-, six-year goal. If you do something that works overnight, the whole industry will copy it the next day and all of a sudden it doesn’t work again. We know two things here: NYRA is going to be here for a long time and we have VLT money for a long time. So we can take our time and grow things. A lot of other tracks don’t have that same (luxury). We have the luxury to try and grow the industry. Most of the sales are doing pretty good and if you ask most people it’s probably because of what’s happening in New York. It’s not because of Martin Panza. I’m along for the ride. Same thing at Saratoga. I’m honored to be here. There will be a Saratoga next year if Martin Panza isn’t here and I fully know that. New York has the ability to help carry the industry. We just need to find ways to do it and grow it long term.”

To read Part 2, download Saturday’s digital edition of The Saratoga Special presented by Keeneland.