Saratoga County

Saratoga set to open 146th racing season

After an 11-month absence, “Mr. Saratoga” and “Rocket” were back in their element.
Exercise riders work horses out at dawn, on the main track, at the Saratoga Race Course on Thursday morning.
Exercise riders work horses out at dawn, on the main track, at the Saratoga Race Course on Thursday morning.


Today: The 96th running of the $150,000 Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies, a Grade III race; Taste NY: Craft Beer & Cider will feature brews produced exclusively by state breweries at the Saratoga Pavilion.

Saturday: The $500,000 TVG Diana for fillies and mares on the turf, the first of 17 Grade I races; also the 100th running of the $150,000 Sanford for 2-year-olds; Lord & Taylor Fashion Saturdays, featuring a “pop-up” shop at the Saratoga Pavilion and $250 gift card best-dressed contest.

Today and Saturday: Hats Off to Saratoga Festival: Live outdoor music throughout downtown from 7 to 11 p.m. Bands to include Resonators, Blues Sanctuary, Bluz House Rockers, MaryLeigh and the Fauves, Racing City Chorus, Sirsy, El Dorados, Bob Warren, Better by Morning, Marc Berger Trio and Alan Darcy.

Sunday: The Grade I, $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks, a 11⁄8-mile race for 3-year-old fillies; Saratoga Baseball Cap Giveaway; the 23rd Annual Saratoga Hat Contest, presented by Lord & Taylor; Taste NY: Food and Artisans, featuring up to 19 vendors at the Saratoga Pavilion with products made exclusively in-state.

After an 11-month absence, “Mr. Saratoga” and “Rocket” were back in their element.

The two horse racing aficionados stood at the top of the stretch Thursday afternoon, watching workers meticulously grade layers of soil on the main track at Saratoga Race Course — a final preparation intended to keep the surface soft and loose for the thoroughbreds. For “Mr. Saratoga” — more commonly known as Don Taylor of Houston — opening day of the 40-day meet is like a homecoming and Christmas wrapped into one.

“I’m champing at the bit, just like a good racehorse,” he said, letting out a short burst of laughter at the cliche.

Likewise, “Rocket” — Robert Hitsous of Brooklyn — was more than ready to hear longtime New York Racing Association announcer Tom Durkin’s voice booming from a crowded grandstand, to hear those three words that echo at the start of every race at the track: “And they’re off!”

“There’s great anticipation,” he said.

Both members of a close-knit group of racing fanatics dubbed the Tree Huggers, Taylor and Hitsous plan to take up residence for most of the 146th racing meet at a cluster of picnic tables in the backyard within close proximity of “the golden oak” — a majestic tree they sometimes hug for luck after making a wager. Retired and the proud owners of season passes, they say Saratoga represents a place where they can see racing at its best, where the sport of kings can shine like yesteryear.

“Saratoga is the place to be,” Taylor said. “And I’ve got to be here.”

At the other end of the grandstand, Bill Bernal’s staff was having its soft opening for a cluster of concessions and restaurants by the track’s clubhouse entrance. After three weeks of preparation, the general manager of Union Square Events was ready for the crush of customers.

“This is the calm before the storm,” he said as a group of three dozen track workers sauntered in for lunch. “Tomorrow, it’s rock and roll.”

Only a dull hum echoed through the empty grandstand, interrupted by an occasional clamor from workers readying its concessions. The almost eerie daytime calm was among the few such quiet periods anyone will experience at the track until after Labor Day.

Though devoid of fans, the track grounds bustled with workers and vendors making last-minute preparations before gates open at 11 a.m. today.

By this afternoon, fans will appreciate a number of changes stemming from a $1.9 million investment the New York Racing Association made during the offseason. Those improvements include 750 new high-definition televisions ranging from 19 to 70 inches throughout the grounds, an enhanced sound system and three large videoboards aimed at broadcasting the action in lifelike clarity. NYRA also brought in an additional 125 picnic tables, a minor improvement that will undoubtedly resonate with the throngs of fans descending on the backyard this morning.

The changes also extend to the racing card. NYRA has scheduled a record $17.45 million in stakes races and is hosting 17 Grade I events. The increase in purses, however, comes with a decrease in the overall number of races. By doing so, the association hopes to attract a better caliber of horses during the meet.

“Our strategy is to go with a larger field to have a better race for our fans and our betting public,” said Chris Kay, NYRA’s president and chief executive officer, during a news conference Wednesday. “It may mean our overall handle in 2014 is down a bit because we have fewer races, but we believe it’s the right thing to do, and in 2015, we’ll see an increase in that handle.”

NYRA is also focusing on bolstering the racing card on the days of the Travers and Whitney stakes. The purse for the Grade I Travers — sometimes called the fourth leg of the Triple Crown — was increased by $250,000 to $1.25 million; the Whitney’s purse was doubled to $1.5 million in an effort to make it rival the Travers.

“We’re trying to build big days in New York,” Kay said.

NYRA will also help cross-promote other state businesses by featuring some of New York’s top craft beer, wine and artisan food makers. The Saratoga Pavilion will host wine and spirits producers on Thursdays, craft beer and cider tastings on Fridays and an artisan market on Sundays.

The track will also host Fashion Saturdays, a new weekly event sponsored by New York City-based Lord & Taylor to highlight thoroughbred racing’s tradition of style and glamor. Each week, the luxury specialty-retail department store will open a so-called pop-up shop at the pavilion and award the two most fashionably attired patrons a $250 gift card in the winner’s circle.

Downtown Saratoga Springs is also bracing for the meet. Today touches off the annual Hats Off to Saratoga festival, a two-day event sponsored by NYRA and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce that will intersperse nearly a dozen live acts around the city.

NYRA comes into the meet with a more favorable outlook than the previous year, when clouds of doubt continued to linger around the reorganizing agency. Now predicting a budget surplus for 2014 and with high-caliber racing on tap for Saratoga, NYRA appears ready to silence some of its many critics. Yet a lot is on the line at a time when thoroughbred racing is struggling to re-establish a national fan base.

And in New York, the stakes are also high. Thoroughbred racing contributes roughly $2.1 billion in annual economic impact throughout New York and is responsible for roughly 17,400 jobs around the state.

Considered the gem of NYRA’s three tracks, Saratoga has a regional economic impact of roughly $200 million, according to an economic study commissioned by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency. The study also found the track to be responsible for upward of 2,500 jobs, even though it is seasonal.

“NYRA is the critical player in [the thoroughbred] industry,” Kay told business owners during a chamber breakfast Thursday morning. “We’re doing everything we can, making sure we have a sustainable business moving forward so that all those people can continue having jobs.”

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