Racetrackers welcome Cuomo decision on fan attendance, but many questions remain

Fans pack the Saratoga Race Course grandstand seats on Travers Day in 2019.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Fans pack the Saratoga Race Course grandstand seats on Travers Day in 2019.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — If you’ve been to Saratoga Race Course on a day of turbulent summer weather, you know it isn’t unusual for a break in the clouds to reveal … more clouds.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an opportunity to shed some light on the status of fan attendance at racetracks when he held his morning briefing at Belmont Park on Wednesday, eight days before the spring-summer meet at Belmont is scheduled to start.

Some news eventually did materialize, later in the day, but has left the same number of questions about track attendance as before, minus one: Will fans be allowed on the grounds?

The answer to that one is yes, on April 23, a day after the Belmont meet begins, at the 20% capacity threshold established a month ago for other large outdoor venues.

Many other questions remain, but after a long wait, while arenas like Yankee Stadium and Citi Field have welcomed fans back through their doors, Saratoga fans can at least look forward to some level of on-site enjoyment of the 2021 meet, scheduled to open on July 15.

“It’s going to be great to have fans back,” Sackatoga Stable managing partner Jack Knowlton said. “Nothing is as strange as being able to go and watch the Travers and win it with Tiz [Tiz the Law] and … no fans. I was thankful that I and some of the partners were able to be there, but it was anything but ordinary.

“This is good, since we’ve been left out in the racing industry. The Mets are playing before fans, the Knicks, the Yankees, so it’s about time.”

“It’s obviously welcome news to bring the fans back and the horseplayers back into the track,” trainer Chad Brown said.

Brown has a special appreciation for the atmosphere and appeal of Saratoga, since he’s from Mechanicville and spent his summers as a kid in the backyard picnic area with his family.

He’s been on the other side of the fence, so to speak, as a four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer in North America who has also won three meet championships at Saratoga.

At the 2020 meet, spectators were barred from the track because of the COVID-19 pandemic, except for a small number of owners who were allowed to attend on days they had horses running.

“It was extremely depressing,” Brown said. “It’s a year that all of us will never get back, but you’ve got to move forward and hope that that’s the only year that happens. So we’ll hold out hope.

“At least this is a really good starting point. It’s really good news. But hopefully we can build off it to where Saratoga can be full again.”

Although Cuomo greenlighted the admission of fans at the track, there is still uncertainty over what 20% of capacity means at a place like Saratoga, where people have a variety of options, from box seats, to clubhouse and grandstand reserved seats, to picnic tables, to bars and restaurants like the Turf Terrace. Or simply standing.

Many prefer to bring their own chairs, and coolers for food and beverage, unlike at a baseball stadium.

Seating capacity is 13,000 for the clubhouse and grandstand, and total paid admission has been capped at 50,000 for big days, like the Travers and Whitney.

Cuomo’s announcement granted permission to allow fans at the track, but didn’t come with any detail about how to go about it. The New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct, has been planning for a re-opening since last year, which is subject to approval by the New York State Gaming Commission.

“We’re awaiting further guidance regarding the specific health and safety protocols that will apply to racetracks state-wide,” NYRA communications director Patrick McKenna said. “We obviously welcome the governor’s announcement authorizing racetracks to open up as of April 23. We will be able to target a date to open Belmont Park to fans once we have a clearer picture of exactly those health and safety protocols designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.”

“The devil’s going to be in the details,” Knowlton said. “I would hate to have to be the people at NYRA that try to figure out how to implement it, particularly at Saratoga. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

“To me, the biggest question is 20% of what? Are you going to use the 50,000 cap that we use for Travers Day, which would mean 10,000 people? Or is somebody going to say, ‘Well, we’re only counting seats.’ Then do you count seats on some picnic tables that are spaced?”

Accommodating health and safety guidelines will be one big hurdle; distributing tickets at well below a typical Saratoga crowd number will be another.

Knowlton, who spends winters in Florida, but is in Saratoga Springs for the summer and has had a box seat at the track since the Funny Cide days of 2003, was at Gulfstream Park when that track allowed a few thousand spectators for the Pegasus World Cup in January, the Fountain of Youth in February and Florida Derby in March.

“It was pretty bare-bones,” he said. “But it worked. They ended up putting out these squares in front of the grandstand, and four chairs went in each corner, and it was six-feet socially distanced.”

With three months of potential improvement in the COVID landscape before Saratoga opens, as more people get vaccinated, there’s reason to believe that the 20% threshold will be bumped up at least a few more times.

Cuomo opened up large venues to 10% on Feb. 10, and raised it to 20% five weeks later.

“We remain incredibly optimistic, based on the rate at which New Yorkers continue to be vaccinated and the reduction in cases, that these capacity restrictions will ease in the coming weeks and with an eye on the Belmont Stakes and Saratoga, especially, we are looking forward and are deeply involved in preparation for a Saratoga race meet that looks nothing like the one we experienced in 2020,” McKenna said.

The ticket distribution question, of course, will loom at any capacity percentage below 100.

“It would be my hope and anticipation that, three months from now, you’d have an increase by then,” Brown said.

“People want to come in,” Knowlton said. “Do owners get some priority? There are people who have had seats for decades. So I do not envy the NYRA folks.

“You’re just hoping these numbers go up considerably, and worst-case it would be 50%. We’re still three, 3 1/2 months out, and things are changing very rapidly.”

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