SARATOGA SPRINGS — Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn’t believe spectators will be allowed to attend the Saratoga Race Course meet this summer.
The New York Racing Association is prepared to conduct a thoroughbred meet there even without fans on the grounds.
Cuomo said during his COVID-19 daily briefing on Wednesday that the only way the Saratoga Race Course doors could be opened to the public is if there was a statewide reversal of the lockdown on large gatherings.
He grouped the meet, which is scheduled to begin on July 16 and drew over 1 million in paid admission in 2019, with events like the New York State Fair in Syracuse, which also drew well over 1 million.
Cuomo described them with an admittedly misused — but apt — legal term, “attractive nuisance,” predicting that opening these venues would overwhelm the regions with out-of-towners and invite the spread of the coronavirus.
“I don’t think we have time, first of all,” Cuomo said. “But today, I don’t think you can open those unless we do it statewide, because there is such a pent-up demand to get out of the house and do something.
“You open Saratoga racetrack, I guarantee you will have the highest attendance in the history of the Saratoga racetrack. You will have people from the entire Northeast region driving to Saratoga racetrack just because they want to get out of the house.
“Density is not our friend.”
Cuomo’s comments addressed only the possibility of the public being allowed at the track, and nothing he said suggested that the meet wouldn’t take place at all.
NYRA has been examining all of its options after having suspended live racing entirely at Aqueduct on March 19, a week after closing the doors to spectators. The Belmont Park spring/summer meet had been scheduled to open last Friday.
Training continues at Belmont under strict health and safety protocols, while workouts at the Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga Springs, scheduled to begin on April 15, have been postponed indefinitely. This week the Fasig-Tipton auction company moved its popular summer Saratoga yearling sales to Kentucky in September.
Naturally, NYRA is eager to get up and running again, like a few tracks in North America have continued to do, without spectators.
In a statement responding to Cuomo’s latest view on letting large numbers of people attend events, NYRA’s director of communications, Pat McKenna, said, “We recognize that decisions about large scale events are rightly left to our elected leaders and public health officials. At the same time, horse racing is in a unique position as a sport that can be safely staged without attendees.”
Toward that end, NYRA “is seeking to resume live racing at Belmont Park in the absence of fans and we have prepared operating plans that follow the same model for Saratoga,” McKenna said.
“These plans prioritize the health and safety of employees, horsemen and the backstretch community and include a broad array of risk mitigation strategies developed according to the most updated heath guidance. By closing to the public, layering additional health and safety protocols to our ongoing practices, and reducing the number of employees on-property, NYRA is in a position to provide a small sense of normalcy for fans across the country who can watch on television and online.”
Last year, the Saratoga meet shattered the record for all-sources handle, topping $700 million for the first time ever, at $705,343,949. Of that, just under 21 percent ($146,618,750) was bet on-track.
While a meet without spectators would be preferable to the alternative, the city of Saratoga Springs is bracing for a hard economic hit no matter what happens.
City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan told The Daily Gazette on Monday that Saratoga Springs brought in $429,000 last year just in track admission tax alone.
“I think for our economic engine, it would be good to have something over there, but it’s up to the governor,” Mayor Meg Kelly told The Gazette. “NYRA is a tremendous economic engine for us.”
As lucrative as the Saratoga meet is when tens of thousands of fans are allowed on the grounds, NYRA believes it would still be in its financial interest to run there with no fans, instead of staying downstate at Belmont, said NYRA’s senior vice president of racing, Martin Panza, in a Thoroughbred Daily News article on Saturday.
The Saratoga brand is so strong, he said, that “even if we can’t have fans at the track, the handle for a Saturday at Saratoga will be close to double what we would handle if the races were held at Belmont and certainly a lot more than what we would handle at Aqueduct.”
“Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo encouraged sports entities to consider how they could operate without fans in attendance that would be economically viable while providing much needed entertainment,” McKenna said. “By closing to spectators and reducing employees and support staff to only those who are required under the rules of racing, the running of races would support the small businesses and hourly workers who form the backbone of the sport.
“NYRA held races at Aqueduct Racetrack safely and securely under these conditions through March 15. Our experience during this period of time, as well as our ability to continue the training operation at Belmont Park throughout the pandemic, informs the strict safety protocols that we currently have in place at Belmont Park and would seek to implement at Saratoga Race Course.”