SARATOGA SPRINGS — Somebody dubbed it “the Great Wall of NYRA.”
It falls far short in grandeur and scope compared to the real thing, of course, but the symbolism is inescapable.
In the name of social distancing, the New York Racing Association attached green mesh to the fences around Saratoga Race Course in time for the July 16 opening day of the 2020 Saratoga Race Course meet to discourage curious onlookers from milling about on the sidewalk.
It came to represent the meet as a whole, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo never green-lighted large outdoor public gatherings, and NYRA was forced to keep fans out for the duration of the meet, which concludes on Monday with its 40th day of live racing.
It’s a gross understatement to say that NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke is looking forward to 2021 and the prospect of letting the general public through the gates again, but in the meantime, he said on Sunday that running the meet here instead of remaining at Belmont Park proved to be worthwhile for NYRA, as predicted.
Most notably, he said NYRA is in the neighborhood of the total all-sources record betting handle they achieved at last year’s meet, when Saratoga cracked the $700 million mark for the first time, with over $705 million.
“All things considered, I think it went well,” O’Rourke said. “The support from the fanbase and the betting public was strong. That helped us, because coming into this, as you’re planning through it, we factored in how do we get through to the end of the year during COVID and keep a continuous racing schedule?
“With that there’s a baseline of no casino and no fans. We still thought there was a high probability that we would have fans at Saratoga, but we needed to forecast that way. Because all the purses now are generated off of handle. Typically a little more than a third are generated off of casinos. So in terms of the performance on the handle standpoint, we were happy with that.”
NYRA had plans in place in case Cuomo opened things up to allow at least a limited number of fans.
O’Rourke said that after two weeks of the meet, it no longer made sense to consider letting fans in, even if Cuomo allowed it, since it would’ve taken two weeks just to assemble and train a seasonal staff, at which point the meet would’ve been about half over.
From a financial standpoint, he referred to “three buckets of liquidity,” capital funds, the purse account supplying prize money for the races and operating funds.
Other than the main track renovation and the installation of new drainage and a safety rail, which were essential and also already in progress when the pandemic reached full bloom, capital projects were frozen.
Keeping both Belmont and Saratoga open for training while no revenue was coming in from ticket sales and concessions was expensive, O’Rourke said, but the handle difference between running at Saratoga instead of Belmont made up for that.
“All things considered, it was the right decision [to run at Saratoga],” he said. “Also, at the time, we didn’t know if we were going to have fans or not. There was potential further upside even from where we stand right now. It’s probably a break-even from the NYRA standpoint, because you are training in two places, but with the higher handle, it netted out.
“So if there’s anything that’s kind of the theme, it’s that we got through this. Now heading back to Belmont, the casinos are allowed to open, so are we starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel? That might be a relief.
“A major thing that we’re happy about is that we’ve had no COVIDs, and there were a lot of stakeholders involved in that, the city, the county health folks, the Gaming Commission, the horsemen. At first the measures were real strict, there was a lot of testing up here, the jockey colony was locked down, for lack of a better term. And I think everything paid off in the sense that there wasn’t a lot of fun in a lot of ways, you have to wear a mask, but we got through it.”
Not only is O’Rourke optimistic about next year’s meet, but he’s naturally eager to see the flood of response from the fans after having been shut out of the live racing experience for the first time since Saratoga first ran a meet in 1863.
“To keep people away, when you’re an entertainment business and sport, is the worse thing you can do,” he said. “It’s counterintuitive to everything this organization’s built around. So just to open the doors and let people back in, it’s going to be really cool.
“Take the limited basis out of it — because we’re making this up — we talk about records a lot around here, and one record we’d like to break is opening day attendance. There’s nothing worse than having to keep people out.
“The whole thing’s bittersweet. For us, we don’t want to do this again, man. Nobody does. It’s so early to contemplate the questions about next year, and to even think about them, if we go to 50% . . . just to amuse myself, we’re going to have 45,000 on opening day.”