SARATOGA SPRINGS — Could there be a Saratoga Race Course thoroughbred racing meet this summer with horses and trainers and backstretch workers criss-crossing Union Avenue, but no traffic backups onto the Northway?
That’s a scenario that could play out as the New York Racing Association considers holding thoroughbred racing at Saratoga starting in July, even if fans aren’t allowed to enter the historic track due to concerns about COVID-19.
That scenario could still bring hundreds of horses and workers to the city and bring some economic impact, though not the millions of dollars in spending expected from the average track crowd — tens of thousands hungry, thirsty and free-spending visitors.
“I think for our [city] economic engine, it would be good to have something over there, but it’s up to the governor,” Mayor Meg Kelly said. “Whatever the governor says is what we do. Nobody is going to come and visit until the governor says it’s OK to come and visit. NYRA is a tremendous economic engine for us.”
NYRA is not currently racing at Belmont because of restrictions on large gatherings imposed by the governor, but there’s belief that racing could be allowed again by July 16, when the 40-day Saratoga meet is scheduled to reach the starting gate.
NYRA has submitted a plan to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and the New York State Gaming Commission for how racing could reopen at Belmont, but the plan hasn’t been released. Racing without fans in the grandstand is a possibility.
At his daily briefing on Tuesday, held in Syracuse, Cuomo said the initial economic reopening won’t include businesses that attract people from outside their regions — and he specifically said the New York State Fair in Syracuse can’t go forward unless the entire state has reopened. The fair is held over two weeks going onto Labor Day weekend, overlapping with the last part of the Saratoga meet.
City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said it’s hard to know what to think about a scenario of racing without fans without knowing details of how NYRA would operate.
Madigan said her projection that the city could lose $16 million in revenue for the year if the economy doesn’t reopen assumed the track wouldn’t open at all, and there would be no revenue from the track admission tax, which brought in $429,000 last year.
“This year is a whole other ballgame; it’s not like other years,” she said. “We love what NYRA brings to the community. This is an atypical year.”
A senior NYRA official told the Thoroughbred Daily News last weekend that NYRA believes it would do better in betting handle at Saratoga than at its other tracks, even if there is no on-site betting. Remote betting would still be available, that scenario assumes.
“We lose quite a bit of money at Aqueduct, and at Belmont, we make a little bit of money. Saratoga pays for the rest of the year,” NYRA Senior Vice President Martin Panza told the industry publication. “When we look at it from a horseman’s standpoint, Saratoga, because of the handle, has much better purses than what they are when we race at Belmont or Aqueduct.”
NYRA on Tuesday confirmed Panza’s comments, and said it continues to plan for Saratoga. “While we are monitoring the current conditions and consulting with the New York State Department of Health and New York State Gaming Commission, we are planning for Saratoga to open as scheduled and run in its entirety across the 40-day meet,” said spokesman Patrick McKenna. “We are working in earnest each and every day to prepare for the 2020 Saratoga season.”
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said it remains too soon to talk about the possibility of racing without fans in attendance.
“If it is safe, of course, we prefer fans in the stands,” he said. “But that’s not something that we can or should be talking about right now. We’re eleven weeks out and that’s an eternity in today’s world. I continue to share with everyone asking about this that we all just need to be patient.”
Discover Saratoga, which promotes visitation to the city and the local hospital industry, believes hotels, motels and restaurants will adapt once visitors are allowed to return, though when that will happen remains unknown. “Our hospitality industry is adapting and taking steps to ensure that the safety and well being of every guest is being considered in this new normal,” said Discover Saratoga President Darryl Leggieri. “We need to instill confidence in our leisure travelers and conference attendees so that they feel comfortable to return to our destination.”
On Monday, Fasig-Tipton announced that its early-August yearling sale at Saratoga has been canceled. The sale, which includes a large component of New York-bred sales, is being consolidated with a September sale at Keeneland in Kentucky.
The Fasig-Tipton, in combination with the running of the annual $1 million Whitney Stakes on the weekend of the sale, has become the city’s busiest stretch of the meet, filling hotels and jamming restaurants and bars in a manner that’s always been associated with the late-August Travers Stakes.
“The benefit to hosting it is people stay in our hotels, they eat in restaurants, so that’s going to have a big impact,” Madigan said. “The sales bring in a lot of revenue. The good news for our horsemen is that the New York-bred sale will still take place, just at a different location.”
“The decision to reschedule the sale to the fall and to hold it in Kentucky is understandable and disappointing,” Shimkus said.
The chamber on Tuesday released a new 36-second video on Facebook and YouTube recalling the Saratoga motto “Health, history and horses,” and saying “Health always comes first.”
The Saratoga meet is scheduled to run Thursday, July 16, though Labor Day Monday, Sept. 7.
No opening date has been set for the Oklahoma training track, which would normally open in mid-April, bringing hundreds of horses and workers to the city through early November. “NYRA is working with the New York State Gaming Commission and public health agencies to determine an appropriate date to safely open the Oklahoma for training and stabling,” McKenna said.