On Sunday, everything looked … April.
It was a pretty spring day, Easter Sunday, no less, with all that that implies.
Little foals, just weeks-old, stayed close to their mothers over at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, napping in the hay and sunshine, or turning a curious look at a visitor on the roadside.
The ground was overturned on Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma Training Track, where that track is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, through renovation. Racehorses will begin populating the Oklahoma barns on April 15, like they always do; they’ll start working out, temporarily, on the main track across Union Avenue on April 17.
The racetrack itself, of course, was populated only by songbirds, the clubhouse and grandstand seats empty under the familiar, ancient spires and slate roof tiles.
Which looked … 2020. Even during the 40 days of racing that the New York Racing Association conducted at Saratoga from July 16 to Labor Day.
For the first time since 1864, Saratoga, which chalked up over 1 million in paid attendance in 2019, did not have any fans at the races, a product of health and safety restrictions aimed at preventing spread of the novel coronavirus. It made for a strange meet marked by melancholy for those who couldn’t get in and also for the select few who could.
Says here, though, that there will be some fans at Saratoga in 2021. The more difficult question to answer, for now, is what will it all look like? Because it certainly won’t look like what people are accustomed to.
Making the question even more difficult to answer is the fact that, while everything in the public sphere seems to be opening to some capacity these days — and that capacity is even trending to higher numbers — horse racing in general in New York has been left behind by a state government that has dragged its feet in allowing fans on the grounds.
NYRA reopened for racing with no fans at Belmont Park way back on June 3 of 2020, but beyond some belated accommodations to get a small number of racehorse owners inside on days they had horses running, tracks continue to be a dead zone for fans. This, while small venues like UAlbany’s Fallon Field can get 200 people in for a lacrosse game, and the doors at the huge sports venues are open, too, with restrictions.
My confidence that there will be fans at Saratoga this year is based on the shifting COVID-19 landscape, with widespread vaccination ramping up, and the diligence and creativity of other venues demonstrating that you can pull off events with fans in attendance to some level.
NYRA, which has been formulating plans to accommodate fans at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct since a year ago, still hasn’t gotten the OK from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Adding to the slowness of the process will be the fact that if NYRA does get the green light, their proposals would have to satisfy the New York State Gaming Commission, an extra layer of bureaucracy that teams like the New York Yankees and Mets don’t have to deal with.
“Governor Cuomo’s decision to expand capacity limits for sports and entertainment venues is positive news as we look toward the spring and summer,” NYRA communications director Patrick McKenna said. “NYRA is working closely with New York State to secure the requisite approvals to welcome fans back to Belmont Park this spring and to Saratoga Race Course this summer. As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, we are optimistic that capacity limits will increase in the coming months.
“NYRA has conducted live racing for the past eight months without the energy and excitement that the fans bring, and we have missed them dearly during this time. We look forward to turning the page, and opening the doors to these historic venues in the very near future.”
If you’ve been to Saratoga, you probably realize that letting people in there under COVID restrictions would be profoundly more complicated than, say, Yankee Stadium, where each person has an assigned seat in a building whose shape is simple.
Total seating in the Saratoga clubhouse and grandstand is 13,000, putting the track well within Cuomo’s 10,000 threshold for opening at 10% capacity that he announced on Feb. 10, after the success of the Buffalo Bills’ pilot program. In March, he raised that to 20% for outdoor venues by April 1, just in time for MLB Opening Day.
Besides the reserved seats, Saratoga also has a backyard, where hundreds of picnic tables cover the ground.
There’s the apron, where railbirds line the fence several rows deep during a race.
Under social distancing guidelines, these areas would need to be altered somehow. Seems like there are some pretty simple solutions for the picnic tables, but Saratoga is a place where thousands of people randomly roam throughout the day.
Another challenge: let’s say Cuomo finally gets around to opening the doors at racetracks … no matter what the capacity number is, it’s not going to be anywhere near a full house, and the demand for Saratoga admission is going to be fast and furious and far exceed supply.
A new experience for Saratoga fans would have to be applications, followed by lotteries and waiting lists. Sounds like fun, right?
One thing that won’t happen, at least if NYRA knows what’s good for it, is a price jack on the tickets that do become available. The supply-demand aspect might justify that, but the PR hit would be substantial and probably not worth it.
People don’t like getting jerked around under any circumstances, and that sense must be even more acute these days.
“While we are optimistic that capacity limits will increase in the coming months, we have a variety of options to address scenarios where demand is far greater than supply,” McKenna said. “The specifics continue to evolve, but our goal in each scenario is to be able to accommodate as many fans as possible by offering purchasing options that are fair and equitable.”
Like they did last year, NYRA has the luxury of time — for now — to get ready for a Saratoga meet with fans, and not so much if they’re going to get people into Belmont Park. The Belmont Stakes is June 5.
The Saratoga meet is scheduled to open on July 15, and the bet here is that it can be Saratoga again, that July 2021 will look more like all those other Julys we’re used to, and not that one in 2020.
Still, those who believe that Cuomo “hates horse racing” — you hear that all the time — or is simply ambivalent toward the sport have plenty of ammunition right now.
NYRA, meanwhile, must continue to be that horse that is primed to run, prepared for the chase, patient but itching for the bell to ring and the stall doors to swing open. Then the starting gate activates, and everybody jumps into action, taking advantage of opportunities to accelerate or improve position.
Except for NYRA, because their door remains stubbornly shut, while the field disappears around the turn.