The 144th meet of the Saratoga Race Course starts today. But despite months of preparation and more competitive racing expected as a result of higher purses, success on opening day will again hinge on a variable outside of everyone’s control.
“The No. 1 concern I have is the weather,” said Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus, who lamented the wet and then extremely hot opening days of the past two years. “That is literally the only obstacle we have.”
The National Weather Service is predicting the day will be partly sunny with a high of about 77 degrees for the first race post time at 1 p.m.
If the weather prediction holds, speculation is that last year’s opening day of 25,155 fans can be surpassed.
Dan Silver, director of communications for the New York Racing Association, said that they’re anticipating a positive meet, based on indications from Aqueduct and Belmont, where NYRA also runs racing. “It’s a meet that’s always attracted the world’s best jockeys, trainers and horsemen and this year is very much in line with what we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
Silver added that the future for NYRA is also “very positive.”
It has been a rough eight months for the corporation. It was involved in a payout scandal, had two top officials ousted in May and is now awaiting a takeover by the state, most likely after the Saratoga meet, according to industry officials. Despite all of that, Silver said, “Our focus is going to continue to be on putting on the best racing meet in the industry.”
It’s not clear whether any of the discord and upheaval surrounding NYRA will have an impact on the meet, but Shimkus said he thinks there won’t be any effect since the “front line staff” at the track are still doing the same jobs they do every year. He added that plans to switch the leadership at NYRA’s board of directors is also widely separated from the people performing day-to-day operations.
“They luckily have been sort of removed from the politics that have gone on at the upper levels and they’re doing their jobs. The gates will be open, the food will be served and the horses will run,” Shimkus said.
New at the track this year are free wireless Internet, a craft beer garden by the Carousel and improvements to the dining facilities, including an expanded breakfast porch and a new clubhouse dining floor.
The most anticipated change among racing industry personnel and serious bettors are the higher purses that will be in place this year as the result of video lottery terminal revenue from Aqueduct that NYRA receives. NYRA’s 2012 budget projected purses will go up by about 34 percent and potentially increase the amount bet by about 9 percent, which is worth a bump of $48 million.
Shimkus said he believes the higher purses will make more competitive fields that will draw crowds. This sentiment was echoed by Jack Knowlton, co-owner of Sackatoga Stable and a fixture of racing in Saratoga, who said he is impressed by the field of horses already lined up for this weekend and expects it to continue throughout the meet.
“The racing in Kentucky is going downhill and New York, with the new money from VLTs, is going up,” Knowlton said.
NYRA’s state overseer, the Franchise Oversight Board, has expressed some reservations about the potential impact of higher purses and has asked for the measure to be studied further. The state, though, has protected the flow of VLT money reserved for higher purses. NYRA recently released data showing an uptick in betting at Belmont, where attendance has been down slightly.
Earlier in the year there was some indication that the higher purses were leading to an inordinate number of horse deaths at Aqueduct, so eligibility requirements were changed to ensure the safety of horses. Knowlton said the reforms have ensured that this won’t be an issue at Saratoga and characterized the animal deaths as a “bump in the road.”
Saratoga was the site of three horse deaths this past weekend during its annual open house, when steeplechase horses were euthanized as the result of accidents, which are being described as anomalies.
National Steeplechase Association Director of Racing Bill Gallo said the deaths were unfortunate and sad, but couldn’t be attributed to any problems with the course and stressed that they weren’t connected.
Aside from opening day, the city also opened its new Woodlawn Avenue parking garage. While not completely finished, it is in use of 330 cars, which is more than twice what had been available at the old surface parking lot.
Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson said he expects the garage to be widely used today and throughout the meet.