by Bob Ehalt
There's often a reward for perseverance, especially when it comes to winter racing in New York.
For all of the problems Mother Nature and an inevitable spate of cancellations can create during the coldest months of the year, there's an equal number of benefits that can be derived from racing at a time of year when purses remain strong, competition eases from the intense levels of warmer months and incentives can make managing a stable a more profitable venture.
"I'm happy they race here in New York during the winter and that so many of my owners support it," said trainer Rudy Rodriguez, currently the leading trainer at Aqueduct's winter meet with 21 wins through February 19. "I've been here for the last 10 years. It's more convenient and makes better business sense for us to be here. We need winter racing."
A fine example of the value of winter racing came on February 17 in the $100,000 Haynesfield for New York-breds. For the field of six older males, the 1 1/8-mile test offered them a chance to pick up stakes laurels that had eluded them during other times of the year.
Only three starters in the field owned stakes wins, with the most recent added-money triumph coming in 2016, but that all changed when Yellow Moon Stable's Hit It Once More pulled away to a 2 ¾-length win as the 16-1 outsider for his first stakes win since the 2016 New York Derby at Finger Lakes.
For trainer Gary Sciacca, who has spent winters in New York since opening his stable in 1981, the victory underscored the value for smaller operations in racing at Aqueduct during the winter months.
"We're stabled in New York all year and the winter program is vital to New York racing," Sciacca said. "We've always participated in it and will continue to do so. There's a great stakes program and opportunities for horsemen to compete with conditions to allow you to move up through the ranks from maiden to stakes level."
For Sciacca, the Haynesfield represented his first stakes win outside of starter stakes since the 2017 Hollie Hughes, also in February.
For other horseman with small stables, winter offers them a chance to compete for some of the largest purses in the country, specifically average daily purses of nearly $500,000, without having to face the best horses from Eclipse Award-winning trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey.
"It helps those trainers who find it difficult to win races later in the year. The competition gets a little easier, the fields get a little smaller and they can earn a pretty good living during the winter," said Martin Panza, NYRA's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations.
"The purses are very strong in the winter. We offer a $60,000 maiden special weight race and the only place with a higher purse is Oaklawn... It's surprising more horsemen do not take advantage of it. The purses are strong and the racing is not as competitive. In some places you have full fields running for not a lot of money. It doesn't make a lot sense. Sometimes you scratch your head and wonder why more horses aren't left in New York or come to New York in the winter time."
The winning owner's share of an open maiden special weights race at Aqueduct is $36,000, compared to $32,400 at Santa Anita Park, $27,000 at Parx Racing, $25,800 at Gulfstream Park and $24,600 at Fair Grounds Race Course.
"I saw a $50,000 starter race with a purse of $55,000 and it had a field of five horses in it," said owner/breeder Joe Appelbaum, President of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "If you're an owner or trainer, what more could you ask for?"
To help horsemen make ends meet, NYRA launched a new program in December that awards both owners and trainers a $300 credit for each runner finishing fourth through last, with the money going toward their New York Jockeys Injury Compensation Fund workers' compensation payments.
"It's a nice program that can only help trainers that race here in the winter. Even if you run your horses a bit, it can cover your workers comp for jockeys and exercise riders," said Panza, who pointed out the program will be in effect through March 31.
Winter also allows owners of New York-breds an opportunity to collect a bonus of 20 percent for New York-sired horses and 10 percent for non-New York-sired horses based on purse money in open races, up to a limit of $20,000 per award. These bonuses were part of more than $15 million distributed in owner, breeder and stallion awards for New York-breds in 2017.
Aside from its impact on racing, staying open during winter plays an important role in providing year-round employment for horsemen and backstretch workers who call the NYRA circuit home.
"It's hard for families to relocate for the winter," said Rodriguez, who is seeking a third-straight winter meet title and fourth overall. "A lot of people depend on it and would be without a job without it. They can't afford to be without the work."
Winter racing also allows backstretch workers continued access to NYTHA-supported programs that include a free health clinic, dental and eyeglass programs as well as recreation and scholarship programs for themselves and their families.
"When you talk about winter racing, the first benefit is one of opportunity. It's really hard to win in New York in the summer for many of our horsemen, so this is their opportunity to earn the money they need to keep them in business," Appelbaum said. "It also insures we have a stable workforce in New York. Winter racing is why we have people who work for some stables for 20 years or more. People do not have to move around and work for different people. We have 1,500 horses that stay with us during the winter, so you can imagine the hundreds of workers that are employed full-time who are benefitting our economy. We also have a bigger wagering handle than just about any meet in the country, so I don't know what we have to be ashamed or embarrassed about, because winter racing in New York does extremely well in comparison to other tracks."
Panza also said winterizing Aqueduct's main track has helped NYRA's winter racing program by allowing races at more distances than in previous years when racing was conducted on the inner track and sprints could not be contested beyond six furlongs.
"It's helped us, even if field size doesn't show it right now," Panza said. "It has helped us offer a better racing program."
Looking ahead, NYRA has plans in place for a "Ship & Win" program which will offer a 30 percent purse boost, except for stakes races, as well as a $1,500 shipping stipend for horses who ship in from Oaklawn Park and race at the Aqueduct's spring meet or the Belmont Park spring/summer meets. Also, horses who have raced at Gulfstream Park or Tampa Bay Downs may be eligible for a $1,500 shipping subsidy for the Aqueduct spring meet.
Meanwhile, for some horsemen, staying in New York, racing year-round in the Big Apple and taking advantages of the opportunities that present themselves amidst the frigid weather, is foremost among their priorities.
"Other tracks want me to run my horses there, but this is my home and I want to stay here," Rodriguez said. "I want to concentrate on being in one place throughout the year. The purses and workers' compensation incentives are an incentive for us to be here and I wish more people would take advantage of what's being offered and race here to make things even better."