The New York Racing Association is promising great racing this summer at Saratoga Race Course — but fans will need to reach deeper into their pockets for some of the premium experiences.
The annual thoroughbred meet that on any given day draws nearly 25,000 people to the historic Union Avenue track and double’s Saratoga’s population will offer a record $18.7 million in purses, including the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 29 and the $1.25 million Whitney on Aug. 8.
This year’s meet will open amid excited speculation about whether Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will appear at the track, and what that could mean to Saratoga and NYRA.
Saratoga race course 2015 giveaways with paid admission
Sunday, July 26: Saratoga baseball cap
Monday, Aug. 3: Saratoga cooler bag
Wednesday: Aug. 19: Saratoga umbrella
Sunday, Sept. 6: Saratoga long-sleeve T-shirt
Last year, the track drew 972,000 fans, a number NYRA officials would love to top, and might if American Pharoah came.
But whether the Bob Baffert-trained colt comes to Saratoga or not, attendees will be asked to pay to reserve tables at the refurbished Carousel restaurant sports bar, and also pay for the first time outside of Travers Day to reserve the best picnic table spots.
Also, the traditional free “open house” held on the Sunday before the track opens has been canceled. It will be replaced by “community days” each Monday that will feature games, crafts, and other activities for children, as well as fundraising opportunities for non-profit organizations.
On Tuesday, NYRA President Christopher Kay outlined the reasons for dropping the open house, which has been held each year since the early 1980s. He said last year’s open house attendance was modest; it’s hard to get jockeys to enter exhibition races; and the non-profits that have benefited should benefit more from soliciting donations on race days, when crowds are larger.
But Kay said he understands some people see the open house as a community event.
“If this proves to be a mistake, we can certainly change,” Kay said at a press conference at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion to announce details of the six-week 2015 meet, which begins July 24.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen said she has expressed her concerns to Kay about discontinuing an event many residents see as a “good will gesture” toward the community.
“He listened and said he would keep an open mind,” she said later on Tuesday.
On race days, there will be new charges to reserve a four- or six-seat table at the popular lower Carousel restaurant — and 100 of the choicest picnic table spots will also require a paid reservation. The cost will vary from $35 to $100 per day, depending on whether it’s a weekday, a weekend, or Travers Stakes Day, Aug. 29.
NYRA is working to attract American Pharoah to the Travers or another race, an event potentially so momentous that NYRA would look at capping attendance, as it did at the Belmont.
Kay said it hasn’t been decided yet what such a cap would be. At Belmont, it was 90,000, but the largest crowds Saratoga has seen are about 50,000.
“We’ll figure out what kind of space do we have, and where will we put people,” Kay said.
Landing an on-track appearance by American Pharoah is widely considered a long shot, but Kay said NYRA has invited the champion. The Saratoga Springs City Council has also sent a formal invitation to his owner.
Whether American Pharoah appears or not, NYRA is looking to boost the prestige of Travers Day by increasing the purse of the on-turf Sword Dancer to $1 million, and increasing the purses of the Personal Ensign and Forego to $750,000 and $700,000, respectively.
“We are developing Travers Day into a national event — a mini-Breeders Cup,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations.
The charges to reserve tables at the Carousel are part of an upgrade that is turning the lower Carousel into a state-of-the-art sports bar, according to NYRA officials.
“The lower Carousel, which has been tired and aging, will be reinvigorated and reintroduced to include a signature sports bar that will feature dozens of high-definition television sets,” Kay said.
While NYRA will charge to reserve 100 picnic tables near the paddock area, Kay noted that 850 picnic tables will still be available on a first-come, first-served basis — the basis that has led to a tradition of early-morning human stampedes by people lugging coolers.
NYRA Chief Experience Officer Lynn LaRocca portrayed the new reservation charges as helping NYRA meet and manage seating demand.
“It’s no secret that securing a coveted table at Saratoga can be a challenge,” LaRocca said. “These new areas will make it possible for guests to enjoy a leisurely day at Saratoga with the guarantee that they have a seat waiting for them upon arrival.”
NYRA is also promising a special event on each of the 40 race days — from craft beer and New York state food tastings to “fashion Saturdays.”
The popular tradition of fan giveaways will also continue, but with a twist: two of the giveaways will be held mid-week, rather than the traditional Sunday.
The giveaways will include a Saratoga baseball cap on Sunday, July 26; a Saratoga cooler bag on Monday, Aug 3; a Saratoga umbrella on Wednesday, Aug. 19; and a Saratoga long-sleeve T-shirt on Sunday, Sept. 6.
The track is open Wednesdays through Mondays from July 24 through Labor Day, Sept. 7. Admission will remain unchanged from last year, at $5 for general admission and $8 for clubhouse admission.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 885-6705, [email protected], or @gazettesteve on Twitter.