Saratoga Springs

It is now post time – early: Saratoga Race Course opens today

Community waits to see impact of longer season
A horse on the main track in the early hours of training at Saratoga Race Course July 7
A horse on the main track in the early hours of training at Saratoga Race Course July 7

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Sports

The declaration will come shortly after 1 p.m.

Thoroughbred horses will bolt from a starting gate and people will hear the familiar words: “And they’re off at Saratoga!”

Saratoga Race Course will open today, and horses will be off on a rare early-July date.

“The year 1882 also opened on July 11,” said Brien Bouyea, communications director for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. “It’s tied for the earliest.”

Course gates — for people — open at 11 a.m. Grandstand admission is $7; Clubhouse admission is $10.

The New York Racing Association’s new plan is to give racing fans eight weekends of summer socializing at the track. There will still be 40 days of long shots, hot shots, mortal locks, big scores, wire-to-wire wins and frantic photo finishes — but there will dark days Mondays and Tuesdays.

In past years, Tuesday was the only day the track closed. The new schedule has people talking.

“I think everybody has sort of a wait-and-see attitude,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber. “On the positive side, adding another weekend is definitely a bonus for the hotels and the restaurants.”

Shimkus said merchants’ midweek revenue numbers traditionally have been lower than weekend numbers.

“So that’s the other positive, we’re focused more Wednesday through Sunday when people are actually in Saratoga, so that follows that trend,” he added. “But nobody is certain what consumers and visitors are going to do Mondays and Tuesdays, whether they’re going to stay here and spend money, go out to dinner, lunch. That’s what everybody’s going to be paying a lot of attention to.”

The two-day break will affect restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, retail stores. Like Shimkus, John Capelli is anxious to see what the new summer racing schedule brings to downtown.

“It’s something we’ve never seen before in the history of the track,” said Capelli, executive chef at the Olde Bryan Inn. “It’s the longest stretch they’ve ever done, even though it’s the same amount of days.”

Capelli wonders if the Monday-Tuesday down days will entice summer visitors to leave town, maybe travel to north to Lake George. Capelli believes Olde Bryan hostesses will still be seating people at restaurant tables.

“I have a real big focus on the regular customers, our frequent diners if you will,” he said. “The track season to me is kind of a bonus, it’s really about the people who live here year-round you want to take care of. So I’m excited to see if perhaps that Monday-Tuesday brings in some of our regular folks who I know kind of stay away. They go to Schuyler-ville, they go to Ballston Spa, they just don’t like the hustle. So hopefully this will be something that could benefit us.”

Capelli has heard that some people have already changed their vacation plans.

“One of the major hotels, there’s a person I know who works there,” he said. “She said they’re not booked 100 percent for the first time on Sundays in the month of July, ever. So you can see it’s already starting to make a small impact. But that said, this has never happened before so it’s kind of a guess game. Uncharted waters.”

So far, it’s been smooth sailing at the Saratoga Arms, a 31-room hotel on Broadway.

“Right now, we are very happy with what our booking pace is for the season,” said Amy Smith, general manager of the family-owned business. “We are interested to see what happens on those Mondays and Tuesdays when there’s no racing.”

Some groups have booked rooms for Monday-Tuesday stays. “They do a little meeting and then maybe go to the race track on Wednesday,” Smith said.

Smith also said there has been some speculation in the business community about a Tuesday-Wednesday break at the race course.

“What happens is, and what has normally happened in the past when we had Monday racing, people will stay that Sunday night,” Smith said. “They will go racing on Monday and then go home. Without that, we’re just wondering if there will be a lot of people coming in, even for that Sunday.”

Even with the double dark days, Smith expect the Saratoga Arms will prosper. She calls the racing season the hotel’s “13th month” for revenue.

“Not many hospitality organizations can boast something like that, where there’s this concentrated time where the town doubles,” Smith said. “Usually it’s Mardi Gras or it’s an event that might be a weekend, but we have it for a full six weeks, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

Marianne Barker, whose gift shop Impressions has been a Broadway landmark since 1980, is not sure how the Monday-Tuesday dark days will affect her business.

“The jury’s out,” she said. “We’ll find out, I guess. We are concerned about losing the racing crowd on a Monday.”

People could visit the races Saturday and Sunday and leave for home after the final weekend race. Barker would prefer they stay in hotels both nights, check out Monday and then use free time to wander downtown and shop.

“We sure hope that’s what they do,” she said.

Barker knows for sure more people will be in the city through Labor Day, Sept. 2, the last day of the meet. “We’re planning on being busy,” she said.

Officials from NYRA showed off the course’s new “1863 Club” on Tuesday. The three-level, climate-controlled building at the Clubhouse turn replaces the “At the Rail” pavilion and becomes the second major upgrade in the past two years.

In 2018, NYRA opened “The Stretch,” located in the grandstand at the top of the stretch. The section features 32 boxes that can accommodate four to 12 people. Each box is equipped with an iPad, which guests can use to order food, place bets at Saratoga and other race tracks and watch television.

NYRA spokesman Pat McKenna said there there currently are no plans to keep the “1863 Club” open past the racing season.

“At this point, we’re just focusing on opening to the general public on Thursday and maximizing its use during the racing meet itself,” he said Tuesday, during the club’s preview.

The racing association may be running out of spots for new construction.

“I think at this point, you’re talking about refurbishing existing areas to keep in line with the history and tradition of Saratoga Race Course,” McKenna said. “Obviously, you’re not talking about a huge amount of available real estate. This was essentially the last piece of under-utilized real estate on the front side.”

Today’s Opening Day perks for fans will include: u A white cooling towel, featuring the red Saratoga logo, that will be given to season pass and ticket holders. u Samples of wine and spirits from New York State wineries and distilleries, available during the meet’s first edition of Taste NY: Wine & Spirits. Fans will receive five samples for $5. Participants must be at least 21 years of age to sample.

Business owners will soon see what kind of perks the new schedule brings.

Shimkus said NYRA Chief Executive Officer David O’Rourke met with the Chamber’s board — which includes restaurateurs, hoteliers and retailers — a few weeks ago.

“David made it clear he wants to meet with the business community again after the meet, he wants to know what kind of numbers we see with this new schedule, what kind of economic impact it has locally and he’s going to be sharing information about how it impacted NYRA,” Shimkus said.

“He’s committed that we’ll be one of those stakeholders that helps them to decide whether this worked or not,” he added.

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