Years ago, when I would make an excursion to Belmont Park or Aqueduct, my horseplayer friends there would greet me by saying, "Welcome to the big leagues. How are things back in the sticks?"
The New York tracks were the colossi of American racing, and the bettors who patronized them were predictably chauvinistic. They looked on out-of-state tracks the way New Yorkers in general look on Toledo.
But on my trips to Belmont this fall, I have detected no trace of that old chauvinism. Some of the horseplayers who used to razz me about my bush-league origins aren't there any more; they go to the races in New Jersey instead. The survivors spend most of their time moaning about the boredom of the racing programs. "Why would you come here," one of them asked me on the day of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, "when you could be betting 12-horse fields at Laurel?"
The problems of the New York Racing Association are numerous, and so are their causes, but almost everybody agrees they began with the creation of the Off-track Betting Corporation.
When horseplayers could place a legal bet by walking to their corner OTB shop instead of taking the Long Island Railroad to Belmont, the NYRA's attendance began a steady slide. In the pre-OTB year of 1970, the average crowd at Belmont's fall meeting was 27,537. This year it is 19,454. One day this fall there were 9,370 people in the track's cavernous stands -- a figure that would have been utterly unthinkable a decade ago.
Faced with such a decline, any ordinary business would attempt to cater to the desires of its faithful customers and woo back some of the defectors. for a racetrack, this should not be a complex problem. Horeseplayers don't even demand much in the way of amenities; they want good, competitive, bettable racing.
In New York, though, the desires of the bettors often clash headlong with those of the owners and trainers. The NYRA tracks are overseen by a board of trustees, mostly wealthy horse owners who still think of racing as the SPORT OF KINGS. They want to put on "quality racing" -- which means racing principally geared to the expensive thoroughbreds they own.
New York offers no races for horses worth less than $10,000. on yesterday's card, there were only three claiming events -- valued at $10,000, $25,000 and $40,000 -- and the rest were higher quality allowance races. In theory this sounds wonderful, but there is a drawback. "It's a fact," said David Stevenson, director of racing "that horsemen tend to race better-quality stock less often." There horeseman usually have large numbers of well-bred 2-year-olds who often don't race at all until summer or fall, and are handled with great caution.
Unlike his counterparts in other states, racing secretary Lenny Hale doesn't pressure trainers to run their horses. It's one thing to force a man to enter a $10,000 claimer to beef up a field; it's quite another to twist his arm to enter a $20,000 piece of merchandise against his will.
These factors lead to the bane of every horseplayer's existence: small fields. A race with five or six horses is usually uninteresting; it rarely offers opportunities for profit. Bettors may be willing to tolerate one or two small fields on a program, but New York has offered a steady diet of them.
At Belmont yesterday, there were a total of 57 horses running on the nine race card: an average of about six per race. There were four fields of five. And they were boring races, often rematches of six-horse races a week earlier.
The bettors who have been suffering through such cards day after day can only look with envy at Laurel, where a handicapper can get his teeth into a competitive 12-horse $5,000 claiming race, where the racing secretary hates to put on anything as small as a seven-horse field. For once, Marylanders can say to those once-smug New Yorkers: Eat your heart out.