Like so-called “stoopers” picking up mutuel tickets off the ground, looking for winners mistakenly discarded, Saratoga Race Course fans have been searching for any scrap of evidence that they’ll be let through the turnstiles this season.
If a bystander outside the fence tweets a photo of workers testing TV monitors, it’s a good sign.
If Monmouth Park in New Jersey opens its doors to a limited capacity of spectators, it’s cause for optimism.
But there will be no fans allowed on opening day of the 152nd Saratoga meet on Thursday — this we know for sure — and with each passing day without New York state approval, the already low likelihood that we’ll see fan attendance at some point probably gets lower.
It will make for a surreal scene on Thursday and throughout the meet at a thoroughbred track that put a cap on Travers Day attendance a few years ago because it promised to get unwieldy and that drew over 1 million in paid admission last year despite losing one of 40 racing days to a heat wave.
What shouldn’t change significantly is the quality of racing, certainly not in graded stakes, and, besides the attendance ban due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is in a position to be identified historically for the appearance of star colt Tiz the Law in the Travers Stakes.
The meet will be proving ground for renovations to the main track, which was the site of mountains of dirt in the winter time as NYRA laid down a new foundation and took the opportunity to replace some of the drainage and install a safety rail on the inside of the dirt track.
As further indication of the upside-down world, Saratoga’s signature race will be run near the beginning of the meet (Aug. 8) instead of toward the end, as the repositioning of the Kentucky Derby on the calendar by the pandemic has had a wave effect on the schedules of many of the tracks in North America.
Tracks have been running spectator-free for months, including Belmont Park for Tiz the Law’s commanding performance to win the Belmont Stakes on June 20.
But the two sides of the Saratoga coin are great racing and fervent on-track fan attendance, and the 2020 meet promises to come up tails 40 race days in a row.
Here’s an overview of the various elements in place for a Saratoga meet the likes of which no has ever seen:
YOU CAN’T COME IN
Saratoga fans have been gnashing their teeth about this prospect since, well, probably some time in late February.
In a Gazette article all the way back in late March, Paul Matties of Ballston Spa, a nationally renowned horse bettor, placed 4-5 odds that the Saratoga meet would be spectator-free, and the smart money has probably pounded that down some more.
Not that the New York Racing Association hasn’t continued to draw up plans and safety protocols and make a case that it hoped would convince the state to open up. NYRA has said all along that it intended to run at Saratoga from July 16 to Sept. 7, even without fans, since brand strength suggested greater betting handle than if they stayed downstate.
Racing was shut down entirely in mid-March, a few days after Aqueduct began racing behind closed doors. By early April, 20 backstretch workers at Belmont had tested positive for coronavirus, and one, Martin Zapata, died of COVID-19 on April 7.
Just this week, three jockeys, Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza, New York-based Luis Saez and Martin Garcia, all of whom were riding at Los Alamitos last Saturday, tested positive for COVID-19. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, who won the Saratoga riding title in 2013 and 2014, tested positive while in Florida in late March.
The Capital Region began to open up as it hit benchmarks in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phase-in plan, but he tagged Saratoga as an “attractive nuisance” in late April, based on its reach well out of state for on-track patrons, casting serious doubt that Saratoga would ever be allowed to let fans in.
NYRA has even offered up a plan for allowing a small number of racehorse owners to get on the grounds to see their horses, but it’s been a week and half since then without a decision from the state.
It’s not unusual for massive Belmont Park to seem almost barren on race days, but an empty Saratoga would be a scene straight out of “The Twilight Zone.”
STAKES SCHEDULE UPHEAVAL
While many of the traditional stakes races, like the Whitney and Alabama, remain at or near the spots where fans are accustomed to seeing them, the Travers will now serve as a bridge between the Belmont and the Kentucky Derby in its unusual position as the second leg of the Triple Crown.
In fact, the Travers, which will be run four weeks before the Sept. 5 Derby, will offer qualifying points to the top four finishers toward securing a berth in the Run for the Roses. The Oct. 3 Preakness will be the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Derby Week at Churchill Downs will actually overlap the tail end of the Saratoga meet, creating a logjam of stakes targets for the top horses.
With so much disruption — the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the Fasig-Tipton yearling auctions have been canceled — fans can perhaps warm themselves with the fact that opening day will include a familiar race, the Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies.
Tradition-hungry fans might just accept what they can get.
They also have a local horse, with ringing echoes from the past, to cheer for …
TIZ THE LAW
Some of the current national stars who not only are supposed to run at Saratoga, but will be stabled there, include Midnight Bisou and Tom’s d’Etat.
Midnight Bisou, the 2019 Eclipse Award-winning Older Dirt Female, will train toward the Aug. 1 Personal Ensign, which she won last year by a nose over Elate as part of her championship season.
But the buzz horse on the grounds will be Tiz the Law, who is scheduled to arrive at trainer Barclay Tagg’s barn from Belmont on Monday.
He carries the familiar maroon-and-gray diamond silks of Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga Stable, which was launched into the national spotlight in 2003 when Funny Cide took a run at the Triple Crown, falling short with a third-place finish in the Belmont to Empire Maker.
After Tiz the Law, a New York-bred like Funny Cide, won the Belmont, Tagg said they would not only pursue the rest of the Triple Crown, but the Travers, also.
“This was a race we could have had Funny Cide in, but he got sick,” Sackatoga operations manager Jack Knowlton said. “We’d love to complete the New York circle.”
Of the 35 partners who own a share of Tiz the Law, 10 live in the Capital Region.
In 38 starts for Sackatoga, Funny Cide ran just twice at Saratoga, losing both times. If Tiz the Law stays healthy up to the Aug. 8 Travers, the anticipation among fans around here for his victory in that race will be through the roof.
But it will be a roof with none of those fans under it, a loud, crowded, boisterous scene left to the imagination.