So Saratoga is still acting like Saratoga.
On a side note, I hesitate to break this news, for the sheer psychological and emotional damage it could do to friends of mine.
But the paddock bar is nearly operational.
I repeat …
Walking the grounds at Saratoga Race Course has been and continues to be an exercise in submerged Titanic video footage.
Grass is growing in the backyard like a bed of bright green algae and coral coating the hull.
Overhead fans in the clubhouse sit motionless like barnacles, their blades gathering dust.
There’s the stillness of long-vacated rooms and bars, like the Woodford Reserve one, which still has a scattering of champagne flutes on the countertop, one broken at the stem, detritus left from a clean-up that was never finished.
But there is life here, beyond the ecosystem of horses swirling around outside the grandstand.
The betting public, even if the vast majority of them are banned from the grounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are churning millions of dollars into the pools, including a record Whitney Day all-sources handle ($35,796,435) on Saturday that beat last year’s — when the track drew over 40,000 in paid admission — by almost $4 million. On-track handle for Whitney Day last year was $4,658,622, so those people clearly have found alternate means of wagering.
At $80,325,660, the first four days of the meet showed a 9.4% increase in handle for the comparable four days last year, although opening day in 2019 was hampered by rain.
I’ve only heard good things from horsemen about the main track renovation the New York Racing Association performed in the off-season, which included a drainage upgrade. And they complain about stuff like this, often.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the track has been just about as safe for the horses as it can be through 14 of 40 racing days. The New York Gaming Commission database on equine injury incidents and deaths shows just two fatalities, one from a leg injury on the Oklahoma training track on June 18, a month before opening day, that couldn’t be repaired at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, and one on the main track on July 24 that was ruled a cardiovascular collapse.
Heading into this repositioned Travers Week, racing fans can look forward to finally “seeing” Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law chase his next big prize, the 151st Travers on Saturday.
If the dull ache of disappointment at not being allowed to watch him in person isn’t bad enough, for some there’s the further tease that our beloved paddock bar will be opening soon, but, of course, it’s only for “the people who can come in,” as somebody working in the vicinity told me.
That includes people who work here and owners of racehorses on the days their horses run, a number that was recently increased from eight to 12 per horse.
After two full racing weeks and the four-day opening week, many of the observations I made on opening day still hold true.
For those of us who are here every day, you get used to the daily wristband after temperature check — by now, I can self-administer one like a NASCAR crewman changing a tire on pit row.
You get used to the quiet, but not really.
Let’s face it, if you hadn’t already done so weeks or months ago: the fan attendance ship never had a chance to sail because it had never reached port in the first place. If there was even a remote possibility of a limited number of fans being allowed through the gates, it wasn’t going to happen without Gov. Andrew Cuomo believing it could be done safely, and no matter how you feel about any of his other decisions or his overall performance during the pandemic, this was the right call.
Anyway, I’ve heard that Prime at Saratoga National Golf Club’s viewing patio keeps selling out, and the NYRA Bets gift cards at Stewart’s have been selling better than expected.
If you sort of get used to the quiet here, you don’t get used to the pigeons. They’ve filled the void like an obnoxious gas that takes on the size of its container, with no crowds to dissuade them from perching on any and every rafter, and inside the catwalk between the press box and auxiliary press area in the Turf Terrace restaurant.
Since I wrote on opening day about a dried-up piece of guano landing on my keyboard, two of my colleagues in the Turf Terrace have suffered similar fates. But with live rounds.
There is a red-tailed hawk and a Cooper’s hawk hanging around who haven’t been doing their job to our satisfaction, although there’s at least one baby robin who would beg to differ.
The horsemen and horses, meanwhile, have been working overtime to supply the electronic and digital audience with the type of fireworks we’ve come to expect from Saratoga.
Even though Tom’s d’Etat’s stumble out of the starting gate spoiled what was an intriguing edition of the Whitney, Vexatious and the champion Midnight Bisou engaged in a stirring duel in the Personal Ensign.
Some of the best horses in North America have already been through the starting gate, with Tiz the Law waiting in the wings. Travers Day will take the lack of fans to a different level.
“Weird. Weird for everybody,” owner Jeff Bloom said after his mare Midnight Bisou lost on Saturday. “The whole thing is odd. I’m glad we were able to come out and be here live for the race, but the whole experience, for everybody across the country, is very strange.”
“It’s definitely going to be a weird, probably depressing feeling, in a way,” said trainer Chad Brown, a Mechanicville native who has won three Saratoga titles in the last four years. “So, you know, just stay positive that hopefully, most likely, it’s just a one-year thing and everyone’s just trying to get by the best way they can. I think the local media’s done a good job of trying to report to the fans what’s going on inside the gates, which is really good to see for everybody.”
“It’ll get livelier next week,” said a friend I ran into on Sunday, who watched his horse Ian Glass win the fifth race.
“It couldn’t get any less lively,” said his buddy.
We in the press (albeit a limited number) are fortunate that we get to keep putting our fingertips to our laptops, as NYRA is one of the few racing jurisdictions that have allowed media on track.
Even if the pigeon crap sometimes shares that space.
The jokes just write themselves.
But as one of the clean-up guys who resolutely swabs these decks on a daily basis told me, “Hey … job security.”