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Racing season off to slower start

Racing season off to slower start

Double-digit rates of decline in both attendance and betting marked the first week of racing at the

Double-digit rates of decline in both attendance and betting marked the first week of racing at the Saratoga Race Course on Union Avenue.

But New York Racing Association officials said Monday the numbers rebounded somewhat through the weekend after torrential rains almost washed away the first two days of racing.

“Opening day is always a big day and this year it was severely compromised by the weather,” said John Lee, NYRA’s communications director.

Lee added that the Thursday after opening-day Wednesday has traditionally been a low-attendance day. This year’s second day of racing had the added problems of heavy rain and no bobblehead doll giveaway, Lee said. NYRA had given away bobblehead dolls for the past several years on the second day of racing.

“We knew we would be down,” Lee said.

Attendance for the first six days of the 36-day thoroughbred horse racing meet was down 25.7 percent from the first week of the very successful 2007 racing meet. On-track handle, or the amount bet for the week, was down 12.6 percent, according to NYRA.

Lee said the numbers rebounded Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Friday’s attendance of 20,626 was an increase of almost 2,000 people from the same day in 2007. Saturday’s attendance of 27,297 was only about 2,000 off the 29,216 who attended the first Saturday of the 2007 meet.

Sunday, a baseball hat giveaway day, had an attendance of 38,748, as compared to 46,875 for cap Sunday in 2007. But Lee said the on-track betting total of $3.5 million was almost the same for this Sunday as the cap Sunday in 2007.

Saturday, which featured the Whitney Handicap race, had a handle from bets both on and off the track of $25 million, the third largest non-Travers Day all-sources handle in Saratoga’s long history.

“We came into the 2008 meet knowing that the economy, gas prices, and a particularly early start in July would result in business declines compared to a record 2007,” said Charles Hayward, NYRA’s president and CEO.

“But, ultimately, we’re more dependent on the weather than anything, and after a rough start early, we rebounded over the weekend,” Hayward said in a statement.

Hayward said the thoroughbred racing industry across the country has been “soft” since the Belmont Stakes last month. “We anticipate outperforming the industry during the Saratoga meeting,” he said.

Lee said the numbers were also down for the first week of racing at the Del Mar Race Track in California, which some compare to Saratoga because each track hosts a summer meet. “And they had good weather,” Lee said.

In downtown Saratoga Springs, Steve Sullivan, who owns the Olde Bryan Inn on Maple Avenue and Longfellows Inn and Restaurant on Union Avenue, said his business was up for the first week of the meet compared to 2007.

“It was the best opening week we ever had since we have been in business,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said rainy weather generally helps restaurants. He said Friday’s twilight racing program, when racing starts and finishes later at the flat track, generated a lot of business for Sullivan’s eateries.

“The city is just on fire,” he said about the economic climate. “There is a lot of activity [downtown].”

Sullivan said food and beverage vendors he knows said they, too, had one of the best ever first weeks of racing.

Dale Easter, former owner of the now-gone Professor Moriarity’s Restaurant, is working this month at John Baker’s Gaffney’s Restaurant on Caroline Street.

“It seems to be holding its own,” Easter said. He said Friday’s Hats Off To Saratoga downtown music festival brought lots of people to the restaurant.

“The economy is not a problem, not at the moment. The rain is the problem,” Easter said.

He said today is supposed to be rainless but more rain is predicted later in the week.

“The economy is going to hold up for the summer,” Easter predicted.

The all-time season attendance record at Saratoga is 1,049,309 set in 2003.

Last year's attendance was 958,574 but a single day attendance record of 72,745 was set on Aug. 11 in 2007.

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