So, anything happening in thoroughbred racing this week?
Ha. Just kidding.
We’ll get to some of that other stuff later in the week as Saturday’s Preakness approaches, but for now, let’s talk about attendance at the 2021 Saratoga Race Course meet (because nobody ever gets tired of talking about that). And goalposts.
Usually when somebody points out that “you keep moving the goalposts,” it comes in the form of a complaint. As in, just as I’m gaining an advantageous position, you change the rules.
In this case, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to move the goalposts on how large outdoor sports and entertainment venues like Saratoga can do business and admit spectators, it’s generally seen as a good thing.
When you’re lining up that game-winning field goal from the 40-yard line, and the refs suddenly stop the game to move the ball to the 20, and, hey, while we’re at it, let’s widen the posts by 20 feet, you’re probably going to be OK with that.
And for those who missed attending Saratoga last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, last week’s news from Cuomo should be extremely encouraging, with the qualification that any move to get Saratoga admission approaching a number closer to capacity is contingent upon how much of the grounds will be designated for fully vaccinated patrons.
Could the New York Racing Association designate the entire grounds — grandstand, clubhouse, backyard, apron — as vaccinated-only, essentially requiring proof of vaccination to walk through the gates, and therefore welcome as many as 50,000 (the cap number NYRA has used in recent years for big cards like Travers Day and Whitney Day)?
Sure, why not? That’s one of many potential configurations.
It’s still too early to tell how this will all shake out, especially since there are still two months before the July 15 opening day during which more change could occur, but after a 2020 season in which there were no fans, 2021 promises to look very much like 2019, when the meet drew over 1 million in paid admission.
“While we determine exactly how this guidance will apply to Saratoga Race Course, which offers a wide variety of differentiated sections and seating options, we are tremendously optimistic about the 2021 summer meet,” NYRA director of communications Patrick McKenna said in an emailed statement. “NYRA is committed to safely welcoming as many fans as possible by utilizing all areas including the backyard and offering ticket options that are fair and equitable.
“As Governor Cuomo announced on May 5, it’s now possible for stadiums and racetracks to open sections at 100 percent capacity by requiring all spectators within those areas to be vaccinated. Saratoga Race Course is an ideal venue to implement just that approach for the benefit of our fans, the upstate economy and the thoroughbred racing industry in New York State.”
“Exactly how this guidance will apply to Saratoga Race Course” remains up in the air, and the entire landscape of public gatherings continues to be a fluid situation, relative to COVID case numbers and the ongoing vaccination process.
Belmont Park, which will host the Belmont Stakes Festival at the beginning of June, and Aqueduct Racetrack have been serving as vaccination distribution centers, and NYRA has been encouraging New Yorkers to get vaccinated.
If you’re on the fence about getting the shots but not on the fence about attending the Saratoga meet, your opportunity to do the latter could be greater if you do the former, just based on the likelihood that a vaccinated person will enjoy the full range of ticketing options.
Meanwhile, Belmont Park began allowing fans to attend live racing as of May 1, Kentucky Derby Day, at a 20% capacity limit, which will increase to 33% as of next Wednesday.
Without even taking into consideration potential developments like another percentage boost or allowing walk-up ticket sales (everything at Belmont is online and in advance right now), Cuomo’s announcement last week opens a door to full capacity, based on no social distancing requirement for attendance sections restricted to vaccinated spectators.
The uncertainty over Saratoga attendance guidance expressed by McKenna appears to be at the root of some reluctance by fans to commit to coming to Saratoga this year, particularly out-of-towners who may want to find lodging.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, Discover Saratoga and Saratoga.com jointly conducted a survey of almost 3,000 people who have visited Saratoga County, and the results, which were presented to the county Economic Development Committee last week, show that people are strongly interested in visiting again this summer, but are still unsure to what degree venues and events are going to be open.
“When the governor announced that fans could be at the track a few weeks ago, hotels reported calls and emails looking for more information,” Chamber of Commerce president Todd Shimkus wrote in an email. “When the governor announced this week [May 5] that vaccinated people could go to the track and SPAC, hotels reported calls and emails looking for more information. The challenge as it has been throughout this process for more than a year is that it takes time for those on the ground to figure out how to implement what the governor announced.”
That goes for NYRA, too, which has been adjusting to Cuomo’s ever-shifting standards, with the added condition of New York State Gaming Commission oversight.
The chamber’s survey indicated that 60% of respondents visited Saratoga County in 2020, and 90% plan on visiting this year.
When asked what might deter them from doing so, 44% answered “I am not sure what attractions and activities will be open — i.e. track, SPAC, major events, etc.”
“Last year, hotels had advanced bookings that were made in January, February and March that were later cancelled when the casino, track and SPAC were required to remain closed or to operate without fans,” Shimkus wrote. “This year, as our survey suggests, people are waiting to make the booking until they know what they can do.
“So there’s a spike in interest. People want to come to Saratoga. That’s why we expect there will be a spike in bookings as soon as we know more about who can go where and what the rules will be. The sooner we can get that information the better.”
Despite the uncertainty, you can bet that daily crowd numbers at Saratoga Race Course will be measured in five digits this season, compared to a big fat zero in 2020 (not counting a small number of owners who were allowed in to watch their horses).
The demand certainly will be through the roof.
The Texas Rangers sold out at 38,283 for their April 6 home opener on April 6, and Churchill Downs got 45,000, including 15,000 in a controlled infield set-up, for the Derby last Saturday. Based on video and photos from both, mask mandates haven’t been taken seriously, certainly not by a large portion of the patrons.
For a small preliminary taste, across Nelson Avenue, the harness track at Saratoga Casino & Hotel welcomed fans back — maximum 200 — on May 3, and about 100 were there for the noon first post.
A woman sitting in the grandstand let out a guttural cry when massive long shot Spotlessreputation just got up the rail to win the third race by a small margin to pay $181 on a $2 win ticket (she didn’t have it).
“It’s just a matter of hearing the horses, seeing them go around and everything,” Dennis O’Connor said. “It’s just nice to be outside right now, to be honest with you.”
“You definitely enjoy the experience a little more,” said Bryan Prindle, also of Rotterdam. “It’s just fun to see people again and enjoy betting with people, just to get out of the house and have a reason to come up to Saratoga again. There will probably be a lot of stipulations about what you can and can’t do [at Saratoga Race Course].
“You can even tell by the traffic. The whole world’s got itself in a hurry again. Everything’s going in the right direction. We haven’t had any blowups of this virus. So, 50% [capacity] would be nice on a given day.”
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