Saratoga County

Saratoga racing season makes gains (with photo gallery)

More sunshine and more races were part of the Saratoga scene this year. Both paid off.

More sunshine and more races were part of the Saratoga scene this year. Both paid off.

Total attendance and betting both increased at the Saratoga Race Course during the 40-day meet that ended Monday, New York Racing Association officials said.

Pleasant weather, especially during the second half of the thoroughbred horse racing meet, helped boost average daily attendance to 22,526, a 0.8 percent increase over the 39-day meet of 2011 at the historic track on Union Avenue. Last year’s meet was shortened by one day when the Tropical Storm Irene forced track officials to cancel racing on the Sunday after the Travers Stakes race.

Overall attendance for the meet was 901,033, an increase from the 871,772 for the shorter 2011 meet. But the 2012 attendance was no record. In 2003, for example, just over 1 million racing fans attended that 36-day meet.

“This year’s Saratoga meet was extremely successful on so many fronts,” said Ellen McClain, NYRA president and CEO.

“The quality of our racing product was unparalleled, with 35 graded stakes races highlighted by the exhilarating dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket in the Travers. Our customers responded to our racing with great enthusiasm, resulting in handle increases on track and around the country,” she said in a prepared statement.

Dan Silver, a NYRA spokesman, said, “This has been the best meet since I’ve been here.” Silver, who has been with NYRA five years, cited new initiatives for racing fans, including the free Racing 101 classes for new bettors and the industry’s first Social Media Day Aug. 26.

Daily average on-track handle was $3,207,356, an increase of 3.3 percent from $3,105,171 in 2011. Total on-track handle was $128,294,220, up 5.9 percent from $121,101,665 last year.

The higher betting numbers can be attributed, in part at least, to the additional races run this meet. There were 417 races in this year’s 40-day meet compared with 397 over 39 days in 2011.

The daily average all-sources handle, which includes wagers on Saratoga races both on-track and from simulcast facilities nationwide, was $14,708,799, up 9.0 percent from $13,493,636 last year. Total all-sources handle was $588,351,964, an increase of 11.8 percent from $526,251,819 in 2011, according to figures released Monday by NYRA. Total combined on-track handle, which includes betting at Saratoga as well as simulcast betting at NYRA’s Aqueduct and Belmont Park tracks, was $150,637,998, an increase of 7.4 percent from $140,277,616 in 2011.

Business in downtown Saratoga Springs was also better this year, said Jeff Clark, president of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. Clark said retailers along Broadway said their business during the 2012 meet was up about 10 percent.

“It wasn’t their best year ever, but better than last year,” Clark said.

Changes coming

Silver wouldn’t comment about what will happen to NYRA in the coming weeks as the state takes greater control. All he would says is that NYRA officials and employees are packing up and heading to Belmont Park on Long Island to prepare for the 37-day fall thoroughbred horse meet that starts Saturday.

The NYRA Board of Directors unanimously agreed this summer to hand over the reins for the next three years to a 17-member board that will have a majority of its members, including its chairman, chosen by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders. The temporary reorganization board‘s main tasks will be restoring public confidence in the corporation and creating a structure that can run smoothly and without posting annual losses as NYRA has done in recent years.

The state takeover was prompted by an investigation by the state Racing and Wagering Board into an incorrect takeout percentage on winning exotic bets that was in place for 15 months and illegally denied bettors $8.5 million in winnings. The racing board‘s interim report alleged misconduct by NYRA officials, who appeared to know of the error but did nothing to correct the error. This led to the firing of former NYRA president and CEO, Charles Hayward, and the association’s chief counsel, Patrick Kehoe, in May.

The governor is expected to announced the appointments to the new board in the coming weeks.

For Wayne and Tina DeMatteo of Schenectady, who have been placing their folding chairs in a corner just under the elevated clubhouse entrance for nearly 20 years on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during the racing meet, it’s all about the racing and the betting.

“Winning-wise it was not good,” Wayne DeMatteo said. “But overall we had fun whether win or lose,” he said.

Tina DeMatteo said she’s satisfied. “I’m winning my money back. I’m happy with that.”

Her husband said, “The weather has been real nice and they always do a good job.” He said other than some problems with the track’s public address system the first day of racing everything came off perfectly.

Gary Mesec of Schenectady, who has been joining the DeMatteos at the track for many years, said, “I started out real good but I have been giving it back lately.”

Beer a winner

One of the new concessions at the track was the Saratoga Backyard Craft Beer Garden, situated near the Carousel. Stacy McGraw, manager of the beer garden, said it has been a great success. The beer garden offered a dozen “craft” beers for $5 per cup. People were lining up Monday afternoon to try some of the small-batch brews.

Tom LaViolette, a Scotia native who lives in Round Lake, said it has been an enjoyable meet at the 101.3 FM Saratoga radio station information booth. “The weather was good, the crowd was happy. There were more smiling faces this year,” LaViolette said.

LaViolette said people from across the country stop at the information booth near the grandstand entrance. “They say there is no better track. It’s an extremely fan friendly track.”

Michael Bray, whose wife is equine artist Sharon Crute, said business at the Sharon Crute tent at the track has been good this year. “We’ve had fantastic weather, you couldn’t ask for better.” He said the paintings of horses his wife creates have been selling nicely. Crute and Bray have a studio at 70-B Beekman Street in Saratoga Springs.

This weekend, NYRA held a family fun fest in the track’s backyard. One of the most popular attractions was a pony ride for children. Parents paid $2 for their child to ride a pony and raise money for the Ronald McDonald House in Albany.

Jon Mende of Warwick was giving pony rides to his daughter, Olivia, 8, and son Jonathan, 2. “It was good, I had a white horse,” Olivia said.

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