NYRA's Turf Triple series break from the gate successfully
by Bob Ehalt
Considering that the famed Triple Crown for 3-year-olds that starts with the Kentucky Derby and ends with the Belmont Stakes has been around for about 100 years, it's a big ask of a new series to create a buzz in its first year.
Yet in its inaugural edition, the New York Racing Association's two Turf Triple series for both 3-year-old males and fillies have taken large strides and already built a solid base of supporters among horseman and racing fans.
"I think it's a great concept," said three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, who rates as the premier turf trainer in the United States. "I hope it's a series that will continue to grow in the years to come because I think it's good for the industry to have these longer turf stakes with great purses. Because of races like them, I believe you will see a trickle-down in which turf racing becomes more valuable in the marketplace and that will be very beneficial."
What started in 2014 with the launch of the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks for sophomores as the centerpieces of the Stars and Stripes Racing Festival was taken to a considerably higher level this year with the addition of two high-priced stakes in each series.
For males, there's the Turf Trinity; a trio of races each offering purses of $1 million, and contested at the same distances as the revered Triple Crown - only on turf.
The series started July 6 with the Belmont Derby, a Grade 1 event at 1 ¼ miles, and was followed by the Saratoga Derby on August 4 at 1 3/16 miles at Saratoga Race Course. It concludes September 7 at Belmont Park with the third and final million-dollar race, the Jockey Club Derby at 1 ½ miles which also serves as a "Win and You're In" qualifier for the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf on November 2 at Santa Anita Park.
"It's a great thing for the sport and the fans and the betting public. There's no question these are very intriguing races that are very competitive and are a lot of fun," said Jeff Bloom, of Bloom Racing Stable, which owns the Mike Maker-trained Belmont Derby winner Henley's Joy. "You are essentially taking some good horses and great races and turning it into an event that's easy for people to understand and to rally around. It's easy to create a story around it and to create a compelling situation for people to follow."
For 3-year-old fillies, the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks got the ball rolling in the new Turf Tiara series with the first of three $750,000 stakes.
After the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Oaks on July 6, the scene shifted to Saratoga August 2 for the Saratoga Oaks at 1 3/16 miles, and the first Turf Tiara comes to an end September 7 with the Jockey Club Oaks, a 1 3/8-mile event at Belmont Park.
Both the Belmont Oaks and Saratoga Oaks were captured in convincing fashion by Concrete Rose, who recently suffered an injury that ended her hopes for a Triple Crown sweep and will sideline her until next year.
"It's been a great experience for me and it's a great thing for 3-year-old fillies," said Rusty Arnold, who trains Concrete Rose for owners Ashbrook Farm and BBN Racing. "I think there was a great response. It's a lot of money. The Europeans came and I think there will be more of them in the third race. It's the first year and I think it will do nothing but gain in popularity. I hope I have a horse in it next year."
Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations, said the inaugural years of both the Turf Trinity and Turf Tiara checked nearly all of the boxes he hoped for when the series were announced in February - and there are high hopes for continued growth and interest in the years to come.
"For the first year we're happy," he said. "The handle numbers were OK, and we believe we can build on them. The Stars and Stripes Festival has been going for several years now and each year the handle has grown and we're happy with that and we now have a base for growing the two days at Saratoga.
"The support is there for them. We have to run the Saratoga and Jockey Club races twice to get them graded, and once we get them graded, that will make them even stronger," he added. "When they are not graded stakes, some people will shy away, so I think in the third year when they are graded, that will help a lot."
While the Jockey Club Derby may not be a graded stakes, having it included in the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" program has given horsemen added incentive to plot out campaigns designed to compete in the first two legs of series and build up to the important final leg.
"The [potential Breeders' Cup spot] is why we started looking at the series and ran in the first leg," said Bloom, whose horse finished fifth in the Saratoga Derby behind the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained A Thread of Blue after winning the Belmont Derby. "We thought all along it was something to point to. We never saw it as one race. We thought the series was right up his alley and to cap it off with a "Win and You're In" is great and will only enhance the competition in that race, especially from overseas."
While handicappers had to be pleased with win prices of $43.60 and $28.40 in the Turf Trinity, the two series have already proven to be popular with horsemen here in the United States and internationally.
So far, the four races have attracted 39 starters, with 12 of them (30.7%) having either European or Asian connections or last raced overseas.
World-renowned trainer Aidan O'Brien accounted for eight of the starters and had two seconds and a third.
The lure of long turf races with hefty purses also piqued the interest of Japanese horsemen, who were represented in both the Belmont Oaks and Belmont Derby.
In the Belmont Oaks, Japan's Jodie set the early pace and lasted for a fourth-place finish at 41-1 odds.
Master Fencer, the Japanese runner who finished a fast-closing fifth in the Belmont Stakes, was originally scheduled to return to Japan after the 1 ½-mile Test of The Champion, but his connections had a change of heart. He made the transition from the time-honored Triple Crown series for 3-year-olds to the newest one, but tired and finished 13th.
"Our horses are mainly bred to aim for the intermediate to long distance categories races on turf by introducing various bloodlines from all over the world," Takahiro Uno, general manager of the Japan Racing Association's office in Connecticut, said prior to the Belmont races. "Also, it would be correct to say that we tend to put more emphasis on these categories in our racing fixtures. In that sense, you could say NYRA's turf series would be a good fit for our 3-year-olds and were deemed as logical choices considering how our horses are bred and the entire nature and structure of our racing,"
Reflective of the interest in the series, one of the leading candidates for the Jockey Club Derby is the European-raced Spanish Mission, owned by Earle Mack, a member of NYRA's Board of Directors, and Team Valor International. Trainer David Simcock had considered running the Group 3 winner in the prestigious Group 1 William Hill St. Leger at Doncaster, but instead the son of Noble Mission is bound for the Jockey Club Derby.
"It's the kind of thing I focus on, and for us, it was a no-brainer with American owners," said Barry Irwin, Founder and CEO of Team Valor International. "We decided to go for this one because the farther the better with this horse, and it's an easy ship from Europe to Belmont Park.
"I think once Europeans see these races and taste some success in them, they will embrace them."
Given the early returns, the Europeans are not alone in that regard.