Memorial Day used to be one of the biggest days on the horse racing calendar. Now it has been relegated as an afterthought to the point there was only one graded stakes race in the country.
When I first started in horse racing, the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park was always the biggest of the Memorial Day stakes. Today, the trend is for racetracks to cluster their stakes in a festival-style program. Thus, the Met Mile will be among nine graded stakes on the Belmont Stakes card June 10.
I can understand the marketing philosophy. If you are among an audience that attends live racing a handful of times a year, that date will be circled on your calendar. Having that many stakes races on one card generates a lot of excitement and for horseplayers a lot of good betting opportunities.
The betting opportunities arise especially when there are full fields of well-balanced horses. If you can connect the dots, be it in vertical or horizontal wagers, you will be rewarded. Even in smaller fields that might have an overwhelming favorite, the chalk horse might be a good single that you can pivot your bets around.
The father of the stakes festival concept was Allen Gutterman, who got the idea when he was the vice president of marketing at the Meadowlands. More than 20 years ago, he carded a program called “Million Dollar Babies.” It was a card packed with stakes for 2-year-old harness horses.
Now it is an accepted marketing practice in horse racing where tracks will cluster their stakes to create a special event day.
Penn National in Grantville, Pennsylvania, will offer its racing festival Saturday. It has grouped seven stakes, including the Grade 2 $500,000 Penn Mile for 3-year-olds on the grass.
At a small track such as Penn National, the racing secretary must recruit stakes horses to ship in. The local horse population is not of the caliber needed to fill those stakes.
For example, of the 10 entered in the Penn Mile, the horses last ran at eight racetracks. Bottom line, 10 starters, 10 shippers.
In handicapping the Penn Mile, Big Score (5-2) and Cistron (6-1), who both invade from Santa Anita, stand out.
In his past two starts, Big Score won the Transylvania at Keeneland and was third, beaten by a length, in the American Turf at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Trainer Tim Yakteen retains champion jockey Javier Castellano for the mount.
Cistron has finished in the money in all five of his grass starts. The John Sadler colt has enough speed to lead. But I could see his jockey, Paco Lopez, sitting just off Mo Maverick, another colt with good early speed.
Frostmourne (3-1) and Time to Travel (8-1) also interest me. Time to Travel will be trying turf for the first time and offers value from the Michael Matz barn.
My final column for the Review-Journal will appear June 9. If you would like to continue following me, I will be writing for America’s Best Racing at americasbestracing.net.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. You can buy his Santa Anita Park picks at racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @richeng4propick on Twitter.