Race course looks to the future

A day spent at Saratoga Race Course is, in the apt words of the New York Racing Fan Advisory Council
On Friday morning, July 24th 2015, in Saratoga Springs at the Saratoga Race Course for Opening Day. Mornings on the backstretch on the main track.
On Friday morning, July 24th 2015, in Saratoga Springs at the Saratoga Race Course for Opening Day. Mornings on the backstretch on the main track.

A day spent at Saratoga Race Course is, in the apt words of the New York Racing Fan Advisory Council, like a visit to Boston’s Fenway Park, Chicago’s Wrigley Field, or Green Bay’s Lambeau Field — as much a trip into the atmosphere of the past as a chance to see a sporting event. Its turreted main grandstand was built in 1891, when Benjamin Harrison was president.

The Saratoga experience is special enough to draw more than 20,000 locals and out-of-town visitors on most days to see some of the best racehorses in the world, and to put the Union Avenue track at the heart of the regional summer economy — with an economic impact by itself of $237 million annually, responsible either directly or indirectly for 2,600 jobs, from elite jockeys to young burger-flippers, from neighborhood parking attendants to farmhands in the countryside outside the city who never get to see the frisky stallions they care for race a single furlong.

And yet Saratoga, which opened for its 40-day summer meet on Friday, is also part of a modern world in which thoroughbred racing fans who can afford them demand more and better accommodations, corporations will spring for lucrative luxury boxes, and the competition from other forms of entertainment — even casino gambling — only becomes more stiff, year by year.

So the New York Racing Association, profitable for the first time in more than a decade thanks to video lottery terminal revenue from Aqueduct, is looking for the first time in more than a half-century at making major visitor improvements to Saratoga — a combination of new construction and renovations that could total more than $130 million and take a decade or longer to complete.

NYRA says it wants to maintain the historical character of the track as it does new construction, and that’s what many city residents want, as well. The plans are currently under environmental impact review by the state Gaming Commission and the Office of General Services. They are reviewing nearly 70 comments submitted during a public comment period that ended June 29.

New details about what NYRA proposes emerged when the draft environmental impact statement was released in May, and while some have generated praise that NYRA is willing to invest in a 337-acre facility that is among the most successful racetracks in the country, some of the details have been criticized as putting new strains on nearby neighborhoods and city services.

Proposed changes

Here are highlights of the changes, along with a sense of what people are saying about them.

•The At the Rail building would be a three-story, 34,000-square-foot clubhouse west of the existing clubhouse, packed with high-end hospitality venues for banquets, outdoor dining terraces, and rentable suites. NYRA says it would offer higher-end amenities not now available at the track, and increase the potential for corporate sponsorships. The building would replace temporary tents and trailers that are erected and dismantled every year. NYRA officials want to move forward on that project first, if their plans are approved.

•A new services building would be built off Nelson Avenue, a 32,000-square-foot, two-story building that would include administrative offices, central receiving docks, and a new centralized institutional kitchen that would take much of the cooking now done in the grandstand and clubhouse buildings out of those old wooden structures.

The services building plan has generated by far the most criticism within the city, with residents in the Nelson Avenue-Wright Street area concerned about how truck deliveries and new traffic would affect their neighborhood. “We ask this building, for the purpose of deliveries, not be located on a residential street,” the members of the Trackside Neighborhood Association wrote in comments to the Office of General Services.

City officials tend to agree. “We anticipate major traffic and parking problems that could lead to a negative experience for our residents as well as for tourists,” Mayor Joanne D. Yepsen wrote in another letter.

•The historic grandstand would be renovated, with new casual dining options, more seating, and the addition of escalators. A 3,000-square-foot addition to the east end of the grandstand, along with reorganization of existing space, would be used to create a “Top of the Stretch Club” that would be more casual than the traditional grandstand, designed to appeal to a younger racing fan.

•A new jockey house would be built within the paddock and saddling area, with upgraded amenities and space for racing offices, and a streamlined procession for the horsemen, trainers and jockeys who can crowd the paddock area.

That, however, has raised concerns that the proximity fans now have to jockeys — something almost unique to Saratoga — will be lost.

“Maintaining interaction between the fans and the jockeys is an important part of the culture of the Race Course,” said the Saratoga Race Course Advisory Board, a citizen board that includes appointees of NYRA, the city, and Saratoga County.

•The backyard area would be expanded, taking over some of the existing park and other space NYRA views as underutilized. The Union Avenue track entrance would be closed, and a portion of the existing picnic area turned into a “beer garden.” The Union Avenue entrance would be replaced by a new entrance on Lincoln Avenue. That also concerns track neighbors, who say noise and loud music are already an issue, and the changes could make it worse.

•New barns and worker dormitories are proposed in the backstretch areas that are vital for horses and track workers, but little-seen by the public. Many of the existing facilities there are showing their age.

Those who take a macro-view of the region’s economic fortunes tend to support NYRA’s plans to invest in the track, regardless of any local concerns.

“Any improvement to the facilities is positive,” said Dennis Brobston, president of the Saratoga Economic Development Corp. “These particular improvements will enhance visitor experiences which will lead to more financial growth for our county.”

The track’s role is vital to both regional tourism and to the agricultural scene, in which horse farms have replaced many of the dairy farms that once filled the rural landscape, according to a county economic strategy study completed in 2014.

Viewing the proposals

The draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed improvements at Saratoga Race Course can be viewed online at www.nyra.com. Physical copies are located at The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Saratoga Springs Library, Saratoga Springs city Planning Department at City Hall and the New York State Office of General Services, 33rd Floor, Corning Tower, Empire State Plaza.

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