SARATOGA SPRINGS — Didn’t write a Travers pick column this year because I’m still stinging from my opening-day debacle predicting that Saratoga Race Course would get 40,000 in paid admission on July 15.
I’m still mad at 12,240 people out there for not showing up. How’s that for a grudge?
OK, fine, since one of the beauties of horse racing is that everybody has an opinion (and perhaps even the financial wherewithal to back it up), here’s another attendance number in my crystal ball: zero.
That’s how many fans will be allowed through the turnstiles at Saratoga for the final seven racing days of the meet, after the New York Racing Association shuts down the track to spectators after Saturday’s Travers card, in an effort to quell the spread of COVID-19.
Apologies for being disingenuous — NYRA won’t be doing anything of the kind — but that’s the rumor that’s been circulating and gaining life for at least a week now. Fact is, the final seven post-Travers racing days, including closing day on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 6, promise to chug along just as the first 33 days will have done, with ample crowds even on the slow days.
There certainly are signs — subtle and not-so-subtle — that the ongoing pandemic has made its presence felt on this meet. But to claim that suddenly fans won’t be allowed on the grounds is ignoring several points, not the least of which is that safety guidance from all levels of government health departments hasn’t changed to any degree that would force NYRA to go into lockdown.
So why would they?
“In this day and age, you start to see things on Twitter,” NYRA communications director Pat McKenna said on Friday morning. “I saw some things on Twitter this morning, I heard some rumors around the track and then started to hear from reporters, as well. I don’t know how, where or why this started. It’s almost a case study in the spread of rumors in the age of Twitter in a place like Saratoga. It’s always sort of amazing how much people care. It’s a good thing.
“But the reality is there will be no change to fan admission policies for the final week at Saratoga.”
It is reasonable to wonder, even though the the track is a large outdoor venue that is permitted to allow full capacity (50,000, in Saratoga’s case), what sort of impact the 2021 meet has had on COVID numbers, with tens of thousands of people traveling in and out from who knows how many different states.
We do know this, according to McKenna: of the roughly 2,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal NYRA employees, there have been 12 COVID cases requiring quarantine/isolation since opening day on July 15.
At the risk of guessing how rumors get started, it’s no secret that NYRA’s voluble on-air racing analyst, Andy Serling, hasn’t been on the grounds. He announced via Twitter on Wednesday that he had tested positive, is fully vaccinated and expects to be back next week.
The other notable was recent Hall of Fame inductee Todd Pletcher — also fully vaccinated — who came back to his barn last week after having tested positive. The trainer isn’t a NYRA employee, so he and another co-worker at his barn don’t count in the NYRA numbers.
I don’t know where he picked it up, but having attended both the Hall of Fame ceremony on Aug. 6 and the second day of the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearlings Sale on Aug. 10 myself (Pletcher has said he didn’t attend the sales, but was on the sales grounds to vet horses during the day), I didn’t see many masks inside the auction pavilion at either event.
Of the 12 NYRA cases, six employees have completed their isolation and quarantine, have been cleared by the Saratoga County Department of Health and have returned to work, McKenna said. The other six, including Serling, remain in some stage of quarantine or isolation.
As of last Sunday, NYRA began requiring all employees and vendors to wear masks on the property, regardless of vaccination status, in response to rising COVID numbers in the county, state and country.
“We’ve been managing, as an organization, through each stage of the COVID-19 pandemic since March, since the earliest days,” McKenna said. “At the outset, it was about protecting the backstretch community by instituting quarantine, contact tracing. This was left to individual businesses at the very outset of the pandemic. Last summer, obviously, was a completely different scenario.”
Based on paid admission numbers, COVID hasn’t scared anybody away from the track.
Saratoga, which was closed to fans last year, has drawn over 30,000 for each of the last five Saturday cards, and the Travers should be big, too.
“I think the expectations for this summer on some level were obviously heightened by the absence of fans in 2020,” McKenna said. “What we have seen, rather than Saturdays that are approaching 45,000, is those Wednesday, Thursday and Friday crowds, instead of doing 17,000, we’re looking at crowds of 23, 24 and 25 thousand.
“We’ll see what tomorrow [Saturday] brings. We’re well-prepared for the crowd that we expect to be big, energetic and enthusiastic.”
NYRA is also prepared for more of the same next week, which has been designated as the annual Fan Appreciation Week.
If your rationale for believing that fans will be shut out is that NYRA just wants to enjoy it’s big Travers windfall, then ride off into the sunset until next year, why wouldn’t they stick it out for seven more days?
The track is a place where rumors and gossip gather like flies around a horse’s … well, we don’t have to go there.
Enjoy Travers Day, everybody. And closing week.
And stay safe.