SARATOGA SPRINGS — For me, one of the themes of the 2019 Saratoga Race Course meet was summed up a long time ago by The Mamas & the Papas:
“Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day”
“Monday, Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way”
“Oh Monday mornin’ you gave me no warnin’ of what was to be”
“Oh Monday, Monday, how could you leave and not take me?”
Until this season, Tuesday was the only dark day of the week at Saratoga, and with Mondays and Tuesdays off from work, I took the only reasonable course of action on the first weekday — go to the track — on what was affectionately called Degenerate Monday.
‘Capping at Kings Tavern, shorts, flip-flops, past performance sheets and a cold libation at the paddock bar, and it didn’t matter how bad the racing card happened to be. If they were loading three-legged rhinos into the starting gate, I was in.
Then Monday left, and didn’t take me.
The new reality at Saratoga is that there are two dark days now during five-day racing weeks, and by most accounts, it was beneficial to many without hurting the New York Racing Association’s bottom line. On the contrary, Saratoga generated a record $705 million in all-sources betting handle, while losing one full card due to heat index and half of a card when the track was washed out by a rainstorm. New NYRA president and CEO David O’Rourke estimated that they probably lost about $30 million in all-sources handle, between no racing on Saturday, July 20, and the half-card cancellation.
NYRA is committed to two dark days next year, also, since one of the reasons for moving to this format will still be in play, the recently begun construction of an NHL arena to house the New York Islanders on the Belmont Park grounds in Nassau County.
After that, they’re not willing to say, but the bet here is that two dark days are here to stay. The question now would become whether the Monday-Tuesday will become Tuesday-Wednesday, at least on a trial basis next year, as many people have speculated.
It’s certainly a question O’Rourke had been fielding well before the meet closed on Labor Day, Sept. 2, so I joined the crowd during an interview last Sunday.
He said NYRA will go through the usual post-meet number crunch to evaluate how Saratoga performed in every aspect, including the new 1863 Club, then meet with the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce in early October to raise, among other questions, whether Tuesday-Wednesday off would be a good idea.
He likes the idea of going to Tuesday-Wednesday just to have some experimental comparison, but said there’s also value to maintaining consistency.
“We’re open to switching the day, it’s more a matter of looking for feedback from the business community, if there’s a desire to switch it,” he said.
In informal conversations, O’Rourke has gotten mixed reviews from the community, which is consistent with what Chamber president Todd Shimkus told the Gazette’s Steve Williams this week.
“Nobody’s laying down hard numbers, but a lot of the hoteliers are saying they like the Monday-Tuesday, which was surprising,” O’Rourke said. “I didn’t realize Wednesday was such a big day for the hotels up here.
“And it’s been mixed from the restaurants. I think the extra weekend is good for them, but you hear Sunday’s light, and then others will say Sunday was always light. So until we really get hard numbers, it’s kind of hard to just make up a conclusion.”
By “extra weekend,” O’Rourke was referring to the early start to the meet, on July 11, which matched the earliest ever for Saratoga, back to 1882, when there were 40 racing days and one dark day per week.
As far as the 1863 Club, the $30 million luxury facility where the At the Rail Pavilion used to stand, O’Rourke said NYRA learned throughout the meet how to better operate it, and he could foresee maybe some offseason events there in the spring.
In what could be good news for those who like to check out the horses in the paddock before races, the white paddock tent that hogs some of the fenceline probably is headed to the endangered species list, since the 1863 Club could readily absorb the group events housed at that tent.
My guess is they’ll go to Tuesday-Wednesday dark next season, because O’Rourke is intrigued with testing it, and there doesn’t initially appear to be a universal pushback against it from the Saratoga business community.
From a fan’s perspective, crowd’s have been light on Mondays and Wednesdays in recent years, and a change in dark days could inconvenience some while creating opportunity for others.
Me? I was able to weave a couple workarounds into this season to create stand-ins for Degenerate Monday and bring harmony to the world.
Sometimes it just turns out that way.