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For Saratoga Springs, August is Christmas

Wish list is for good weather and chubby wallets as track opens

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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A rider exercises a horse on the main track at Saratoga Race Course on Tuesday afternoon.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
A rider exercises a horse on the main track at Saratoga Race Course on Tuesday afternoon.

— That silence you hear this morning is a city holding its collective breath, hoping for ample track attendance and tourists to avert a local recession.

Shopkeepers, taxpayers and public officials alike will strain to hear the regular clicking of turnstiles at Saratoga Race Course starting this morning and continuing through Labor Day.

So far, Saratoga Springs has avoided the worst of a nationwide recession that has left many people jobless, retirees with suddenly dwindling savings and others facing home foreclosure.

The next six weeks may determine how well the city keeps that up.

In Saratoga, August means money.

Bartenders and waiters know they can pocket a couple hundred dollars on a weekend night during track season, easy.

Business owners keep their shops open the rest of the year because of the business they do in August. Homeowners rent their houses out for a couple of weeks during the season to finance their own dream vacation or pay their property taxes.

“It’s like our Christmas season,” said Ken Ivins, city commissioner of finance.

Saratoga Race Course generates $400,000 a year in admissions taxes for the city and the same amount for Saratoga County, Ivins said.

Last year, the city made almost $1.1 million in sales tax in August. The summer quarter brought $200,000 in occupancy tax to the city.

Until those turnstiles click today, no one knows whether Santa will come to town.

Last year, weeks of drenching rain put a damper on attendance and handle at the racetrack, but sales tax held steady.

This year, officials predict track attendance and spending will be down about 5 percent from last year.

So officials hope for good weather this season.

“Weather’s always a concern, but you can’t really worry about it,” said New York Racing Association spokesman Dan Silver.

The National Weather Service is predicting a 60 percent chance of rain today, said meteorologist George Maglaras.

Showers and thundershowers are likely this afternoon, as well as Thursday morning, Friday and again Saturday morning. Sunday’s weather is expected to be clear.

“Sunday’s about the only day that we have totally dry,” Maglaras said.

He said the low pressure trough hanging over the East Coast that has been bringing so much rain to the region this summer is continuing to stick around, at least for a little while.

Temperatures are expected to be warmer than they were earlier in the month, however.

“We’re a little bit warmer now than we were through the rest of July,” Maglaras said.

On Tuesday at the racetrack, hundreds of workers scurried to ready the track grounds for opening day today.

A crew of staffers wiped down the many red plastic chairs where bettors will sit to watch their races on TV monitors. Food vendors prepared their booths for business, and the smell of frying onions and cotton candy wafted through the air.

A pallet of shrink-wrapped kitchen pans waited in the Carousel area to be taken to one of the track restaurants.

“They’re pretty much pros at this by now,” Silver said of the moving operation of equipment and supplies from Belmont Park to Saratoga Race Course this week.

He reported no major problems Tuesday.

Janice Brown of Saratoga Springs has seen it happen for the last 10 summers.

On Tuesday, Brown and a younger co-worker, first-timer Kelsey Inzer of Randolph, Vt., watered flower boxes in the clubhouse, which they will do every Tuesday.

But the rest of the week, they will shovel horse manure and straw to keep the stables and walkways clean.

Brown doesn’t mind doing the dirty work while thousands of visitors enjoy a day at the track.

“It’s a good job,” she said. “You meet a lot of nice people.”

Today’s attractions include a free Saratoga Springs coupon book given away to the first 10,000 people admitted and the possibility to buy a new jockey autograph book.

On Friday, racing kicks off late at 2:30 p.m. and the evening includes a dunk tank with jockey volunteers, a family fun area and a live concert.

The Hats Off to Saratoga Festival also takes place Friday through Sunday downtown.

Sunday also includes the 18th annual Saratoga Hat Contest with registration starting at noon and the annual baseball cap giveaway, which this year is a tan Alabama Stakes hat.

TRACK FACTS

WHAT: 141st Saratoga racing meet.

WHEN: Starts today. Gates open at 11 a.m. and racing starts at 1 p.m. Racing takes place daily, except Tuesdays, until Sept. 7.

HOW MUCH: General admission is $3 at the gate; clubhouse admission is another $2; and grandstand seats plus admission cost $9 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and $11 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday through www.ticketmaster.com or local Ticketmaster outlets.

CALL: 584-6200 for more information.

 
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