SARATOGA SPRINGS — If you’ve walked through the chain-link fence gate near the Big Red Spring at 7 a.m. into the Saratoga Race Course backyard for breakfast and morning workouts, you’ve seen the purple tablecloths. You can’t miss them.
Tucked in a corner to the left will be a half-dozen picnic tables circling a tree with TV monitors, each table reserved by a fresh bright purple plastic sheath every morning of the meet, a tradition that goes back to 2008.
That’s where Paul Matties of Ballston Spa and his boisterous crew set up shop to watch the races, as hardcore a collection of bettors and fans as you’ll find.
Lately, they’ve been laying odds on the ponies in a new and troubling way: Whether the 2020 Saratoga meet will even happen.
The 152nd meet isn’t scheduled to open until July 16, but with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the entire world, Saratoga fans and the horsemen who chase the rich purses there have been wondering if the track will be shut down this summer. And even if some form of the meet does take place, what will it look like?
The decision by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) to postpone the May 2 Kentucky Derby to Sept. 5 already promises to have a widespread ripple effect on the racing world, including the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which operates Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. A more immediate and profound concern, though, is the crumbling landscape of the sport itself as a backdrop to speculation over what the future holds.
Not far back in line waiting for a direct hit is Saratoga, a precious jewel in jeopardy of falling out of its clasp. Three and a half months may seem like a long time, especially for a world just trying to get through today. But as the last holdout tracks continue to shut down for everything but training, it’s easier to believe that Saratoga won’t race in 2020.
If that happens, it will deprive countless thousands of people of a cultural icon at the heart of family and friendly tradition, young and old; an economic lifeblood for thousands more; and, a signature season of the Capital Region sports calendar that has substantial reach across the continent and beyond. If Saratoga does run, it could provide an inspirational breath of life for a country recovering from a global pandemic.
We’re many miles — and many painful, inevitable decisions that are already taking place — from realizing that, though.
“There’s got to be a light at the end of this tunnel,” said veteran trainer James Bond, who has 27 Thoroughbreds in training at Belmont and about 75 horses at his private training, breeding and boarding farm, Song Hill Thoroughbreds, in Stillwater.
“It’s a dark, dark day right now for a lot of people, but some day and some time, it’s got to open up. Hopefully, Saratoga would be the great wish for all New Yorkers.”
“It’s part of our life; it’s embedded,” said Ed Stanco, a 1967 Linton High graduate who owned one of the stars of the 2013 Saratoga meet, Princess of Sylmar. “There would be a real void without it. It really would be, for our partners, our friends, my family … it’s the culture. It’s the thing we look forward to all year round.”
“It would be devastating, you know?,” Matties said. “The social event of it, we’ve been wondering, ‘Are people really going to come?’, even if they say they have it [coronavirus]under control. Is somebody going to sit in a seat that somebody sat in the day before? And be around thousands of people? And at picnic tables, or even in the grandstand?
“It’ll be devastating, though. It’s a time of year we all look forward to, it’s a family reunion. It’s one of the only times of the year that I get to see [his brother] Duke and his family.”
Matties is a professional gambler and racehorse owner whose other brother, Gregg, is a New York-based trainer with some horses stabled at Belmont.
Paul and Duke Matties have been prominent players at the NTRA’s National Handicapping Contest in Las Vegas, finishing first and fourth, respectively, in 2016, when Paul’s first-place prize was $800,000.
Their purple picnic tables in a sea of them are an easily recognizable landmark on the path leading from the grassy on-track parking lot past the paddock, racing office and mutuel bays toward the clubhouse.
In this offseason, Matties and his friends have been weighing all the factors while brainstorming and spitballing odds for the Saratoga meet.
“I actually think they’re a small favorite that they don’t run, when we were airing it out,” he said. “Minus-120 [as a money line], maybe,” which is equivalent to about 4-5 odds that Saratoga doesn’t run, or slightly less than a 50-50 proposition.
Even if that’s speculative, the huge financial hit NYRA would take with no Saratoga meet readily jumps off the page in black and white.
Last year, the track set a record for all-sources betting handle, despite losing a full racing card to a heat wave and half of another card to a rainstorm. The sum of on-track and off-track betting on Saratoga, which has been running since 1863, totaled $700 million for the first time.
The $705,343,949 in 2019 represented 33.5% of NYRA’s betting take from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, despite occurring over the course of just 18% (39 of 217) of racing days at NYRA tracks.
That doesn’t take into account the non-wagering revenue generated by a track that drew over one million paid admission from mid-July to Labor Day, for the fifth year in a row.
After the first reported case of coronavirus on the backstretch at Belmont Park in Elmont, Nassau County, on March 19, NYRA suspended live racing at Aqueduct indefinitely, then extended the suspension through April 5. On Saturday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo received federal approval to build a temporary hospital at Aqueduct to help deal with the overflow of patients in the New York metro area, so the entire April 2-19 spring meet was officially canceled.
The Belmont Park spring/summer meet is scheduled to open on April 24, and no decision has been made yet on the June 6 Belmont Stakes.
“NYRA is continuing to strategize the safest options for a return to racing at Belmont Park, while prioritizing the health and welfare of our staff and the racing community,” NYRA CEO and president Dave O’Rourke said in a release. “A revised live racing schedule is an ongoing consideration, but secondary to our primary commitment to the health and well-being of the community.”
As of Saturday morning, a total of six people residing at Belmont, including the original case, have tested positive for coronavirus, according to NYRA director of communications Pat McKenna. He said two are recovering off property and four are isolated in quarantine at Belmont.
As of Sunday, training at Belmont is being cut back to six days a week (Monday through Saturday), and no horses are being allowed to ship onto the grounds.
By New York State Gaming Commission mandate, training at the Oklahoma Training Track on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs is scheduled to begin on April 15, but that’s in doubt. Typically, the Oklahoma is sparsely populated with horses well through May, anyway.
The ticket packages for Saratoga that have been rolled out already are still on sale, as well as tickets for the Belmont. NYRA’s current public position on Saratoga comes from McKenna, on Friday:
“We look forward to welcoming fans to Saratoga Race Course on Opening Day, Thursday, July 16. While we are monitoring the current conditions and consulting with the New York State Department of Health, we are planning for Saratoga to open as scheduled and run in its entirety across the 40-day meet. We are working in earnest each and every day to prepare for the 2020 Saratoga season.”
The first Thoroughbred meet at Saratoga was held in 1863, on grounds that are now the site of the Oklahoma. The meet moved across Union Avenue to its current location in 1864 and has raced continuously since then, with three exceptions: Three years during World War II (1943-45); the two years from 1911-12 when New York’s Hart-Agnew anti-gambling law posed a legal threat to racetrack operators; and 1896, when racing date conflicts and a gambling prohibition prompted track administration to cancel the meet.
With an intense seven-week period of high-level stakes races and big purses available to even the lower classes of horses, Saratoga is annually one of the most important racing venues in North America.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is across the street, and the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion two blocks away on East Avenue is home to a pair of high-priced yearling auctions in August, where some of the stars of tomorrow are bought.
One of the stars of today, Tiz the Law, was purchased by Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stable at the New York-bred yearling sale in 2018. The Saratoga Springs-based ownership group, which campaigned Funny Cide to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003, is trying to recapture that glory with Tiz the Law.
He was a clear favorite in the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday and won in convincing fashion to reinforce his standing as perhaps the best 3-year-old in North America.
As much as the Sackatoga people would love to win the Kentucky Derby again, the Travers at Saratoga is another prime target. Under the current schedule, if racing kicks back into gear by the summertime, it would be difficult to run in both, since the Travers is marked for Aug. 29, seven days before the Derby.
“I don’t think any of us want to even think about that eventuality [no Saratoga meet],” Knowlton said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “Every day I watch Governor Cuomo give his briefing in New York, and it’s a very scary situation. They’re obviously the epicenter of the virus, and we’re all hopeful about some of the steps that are going to be taken and let us get back at least to semi-normal life in racing at Saratoga come July.
“But there’s no guarantee of that at this point.”
“It’s just been a frustrating time for everyone, and juggling some horse schedules seems like unimportant stuff considering what’s going on in the rest of the world,” trainer Todd Pletcher said during the teleconference. “NYRA hasn’t even released what their new schedule is, and I’m not sure that they’re in a position to do so with the enormity of the situation in New York.
“I think it’s critical that the horses are able to get out and move around and exercise. These are high-end athletes that are really primed to race, and their bodies are set on a clock where they’re accustomed to training on a daily basis, and, potentially, when you’re unable to do that, you can encounter some colic episodes and other issues that can become a real problem.”
According to David Grening’s Daily Racing Form story on Tuesday, Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner as most outstanding trainer in North America and a 13-time winner of the Saratoga training championship, has moved all of his horses stabled at Belmont to Florida, Kentucky and some private farms because of the presence of the coronavirus.
Matties said he and his brothers may have to start considering moving their small operation out of New York.
Developments like these could have a severe impact on Saratoga down the line, even if the meet goes on as scheduled.
“If we don’t get running soon, they’re going to have a humongous problem just filling races,” Paul Matties said. “The horsemen are going to go broke.”
“We have to see where the next four to eight weeks are, but there may not be enough horses or people left to even do it,” Bond said. “The racehorses are athletes, and you have to do something with them every day.
“What client, unless you have a ton of money, can keep them going from now until July 16? They still eat. To shoe a horse is $200 a month. It’s a small fortune to own these things. And you’ve got labor. These people have to be paid, and paid well, because it’s a dangerous, tough sport.”
“It’s certainly not a time to be thinking too much about what you’re going to be doing a month from now or two months from now,” Pletcher said. “You just literally take it day by day and do the best you can with it.”
On March 28, most questions pertaining to the 2020 Saratoga meet are impossible to answer. But fear and dread do come easily these days.
No matter the odds, optimism is always in the game, too, in a sport where, as Bond told his clients, “‘Well, it’s probably 50-1 or better [that racing starts up again soon],’ but we’ll all take it.
“We all need hope, and horse owners and trainers are dreamers. We’ll take the dream.”
“Saratoga Race Course is an institution that joins families, friends and complete strangers in the spirit of celebration year after year,” McKenna said in a follow-up statement. “NYRA’s stewardship of this wonderful venue is guided by our responsibility to provide that sense of community, to act as an engine for the local economy and to preserve the history and traditions of the Spa. The outpouring of interest in the 2020 meet is a reflection of the power of Saratoga to bring us together and generate lifelong memories. That’s why we are working every day to prepare for this year’s meet.”
“Nobody really talks about that, but what makes Saratoga so great is everybody has their own little traditions, and they create their own story,” Matties said. “It’s not manufactured for them.”
“I’m optimistic that the meet will definitely run, because if everybody behaves and follows quarantine measures as best we can, I would think this would be stabilized by then,” Stanco said. “I really believe that, but we’ll see. It’ll be a boring summer if they don’t.
“It’s a pilgrimage. It’s on the calendar every year, when the family comes in. Hopefully, my grandkids get the same bug as my kids have.
“It’s our life. When we get off the Northway at exit 14, you still get the goosebumps.”