SARATOGA SPRINGS — The temptation is to believe that the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that was the 2019 Saratoga Race Course meet — a fully completed picture once the last race was run on closing day, then disassembled and stored on the shelf for another day — can come out of the box again this Thursday.
The temptation is to believe that the 2020 meet never happened; in one significant way, it didn’t.
The 2021 meet, with full-capacity admission allowed back on the grounds after COVID-19 restrictions locked out fans in 2020, will resemble 2019 in many ways. Heck, it’s guaranteed to resemble much of the rest of Saratoga’s history, too, a template that has worked pretty consistently since 1864, when the current grandstand, with its elegant, sweeping slate spires, was built.
With a typically smashing meet full of great racing last year — but in front of an empty grandstand that had drawn over a million in paid attendance four years in a row — 2020 was easily characterized as “a Saratoga meet unlike any other.”
And it was.
When the 2021 meet is fully formed, it’s likely to earn the same designation, since anticipation from the public to return is so intense that extra-large crowds responding en force to 2020 is a safe bet. It remains to be seen whether substantial purse hikes will bolster the quality and size of the race fields.
So the puzzle gets all its pieces back, but the picture will look different this time.
Potentially adding to that is a bit of inelegance that has been dogging the sport of Thoroughbred racing on a national level since shortly after the May 1 Kentucky Derby.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the most recognizable and successful trainer in the country, has been banned from racing at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct by the New York Racing Association in the wake of a drug test positive to Derby winner Medina Spirit. The legal jousting between NYRA and Baffert will continue on Monday, four days before Saratoga opening day, when a judge will hear a civil complaint by Baffert against NYRA.
If she chooses to reverse the ban, the spotlight on Saratoga will only get brighter, should Baffert resume his habit of parachuting in with his California-based stable stars to chase the big Grade I races, including the Aug. 28 Travers, which he has won three times overall and twice in the last five years.
We won’t know what the final picture will look like until closing day on Labor Day, but we do know there will be hundreds of thousands of people to bear witness. Once again.
Here’s a look at what to expect at the track as Saratoga is poised for its 153rd opening day on Thursday:
The news from Gov. Andrew Cuomo on capacity restrictions at large entertainment venues progressively got NYRA to the point where they could announce on June 16 that Saratoga was open for business at 100%.
In 2020, a meager six owners per racehorse were allowed in, on the day that their horse was entered on that day’s card. Eventually, the number was bumped up to eight per horse.
So, on any given day, maybe a hundred or so spectators could wander around a few locations, not including the seating areas in the grandstand and clubhouse, in a racetrack that NYRA capped at 50,000 for big days like Travers and Whitney a few years ago.
Outside of a deal on opening day in which fans can get in free with proof of COVID-19 vaccination, no proof will be required in all other circumstances, and the only requirement is that non-vaccinated people wear a mask.
Welcome back, racing fans. Try not to trample each other when the gates open Thursday morning.
WILL BAFFERT BE BACK?
For a track known for its occasional angrily shifting summer storm clouds, the metaphorical version of that also looms over this meet.
The Baffert-trained Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test after winning the Kentucky Derby, for a tiny amount of the regulated corticosteroid betamethasone, an ingredient in an ointment Baffert claims was applied to a skin rash on Medina Spirit in the weeks before the Derby.
In light of a split blood sample confirming the drug positive, Churchill Downs Inc. barred Baffert from entering horses for two years at any of its five tracks, including the eponymous site of the Kentucky Derby, which Baffert has won seven times. By then, NYRA had already barred Baffert from its three tracks on May 17, a day after Medina Spirit finished third in the Preakness and three weeks before the Belmont Stakes.
Central to complaints filed by Baffert’s lawyers is that he was not offered due process, along with what they identify as inconsistency in NYRA’s history of penalizing trainers for various transgressions.
The case against Linda Rice, who has been based in New York for years and won the Saratoga training title in 2009, was cited by Baffert’s lawyers as an example of that inconsistency, although her punishment was handed down by the regulatory body New York State Gaming Commission, not by NYRA.
Since May, the tail end of her legal problems with the NYSGC ran parallel to the Baffert battle, with the NYSGC imposing a three-year suspension of her license to train in New York after a hearing officer ruled on allegations of years of payments by Rice to NYRA racing officials for pre-race information that could give her a competitive edge.
She appealed on June 9, two days after the ban went into effect, and has been entering horses at Belmont on a regular basis, including a total of eight targeting races there this weekend.
Most recently, on July 2, the NYSGC, represented by the state attorney general’s office, fired back in Schenectady County Supreme Court by filing a memorandum of law claiming her appeal lacked merit.
So how does this all affect Saratoga? We’ll see, but Rice would be conspicuous by her absence, if the legal wind blows back at her during the meet.
Baffert, meanwhile, would be conspicuous by his presence, if Monday’s hearing gives him relief from the NYRA ban.
Then again, Baffert, who has won two Triple Crowns since 2015, but whose history of high-profile drug issues has not been restricted to Medina Spirit over the last year, is always conspicuous by his presence. What else is new.
NYRA found a few more spots to add to its catalogue of group hospitality areas.
The parking on the clubhouse turn has been converted to “Tailgate at the Turn,” 16 reserved drive-up picnic areas for six people each that are available for $150-$210, depending on the day of the week ($270 for Whitney, $450 for Travers).
They’ll have access to a tent with TVs, betting machines and a bar.
At the other end of the track, in the popular area of picnic tables dubbed “The Top of the Stretch” adjacent to the quarter pole, fans will now see “Spa Verandas,” which can be reserved by groups of up to 45 each.
This pavilion-like area ($1,125-$1,575, $2,025 for Whitney, $3,375 for Travers) will include lounge furniture, TVs, betting machines and private access to that part of the apron.
Also, 15 lounge areas have been added to the popular “The Stretch” at that end of the grandstand.
Not so visible to fans is a major upgrade and renovation of the Oklahoma Training Track across Union Avenue, similar to work done to the main track in 2020 that was widely applauded by horsemen.
OK, enough about all that other stuff. They will be running Thoroughbred races, too, 40 days of it.
Except for one twist that might seem nominal to some fans, the stakes schedule will return to its 2019 format, after the pandemic prompted tracks to reconfigure some things.
The Kentucky Derby in September and the Preakness in October seemed weird, right? The Travers position, pulled three weeks to the front of the Saratoga meet instead of the back seemed weird, right?
Order has been restored.
The 2021 meet will feature 76 stakes worth $21.5 million in total purses, $1.25 million of which is allotted to the 152nd running of the Travers on Aug. 28.
With any luck, the fans will get to see the champ, Essential Quality, run in that, but the star power will not be limited to Travers runners. Not even close.
Other top mainstays that have been around for decades are the Whitney, first run in 1928, and the Alabama (1872) for 3-year-old fillies.
The twist this year is that the Jockey Club Gold Cup, traditionally run at Belmont Park, has replaced the Woodward on Labor Day weekend. Both are longer dirt races for older horses, but the JCGC is a “Win-and-You’re-In” qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, and NYRA’s idea is to strengthen the JCGC field by providing some more calendar spacing between it and the BC.
On opening day Thursday, fans will finally get to interlock in their favorite spots again to watch all this.
And it will seem like old times again.
More from The Daily Gazette: