Lex Lugar pulled ahead of the pack and crossed the finish line to win the first race of 2014 at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
Driver Bruce Aldrich Jr. did a quick appearance in the winner’s circle and posed for a quick picture by the harness track’s photographer before steering his sulky toward the backstretch. There were no audible cheers from a collection of about two dozen people gathered near the rail, many of whom didn’t even appear to be watching the race.
Bob and Colleen Trossbach were among those paying attention. Standardbred owners themselves, the Schuylerville couple decided to watch the race up close, rather than from the clubhouse or mezzanine area.
“There’s still a hope the sport will hang on,” he said.
Though there’s no exact tally of how many people attended the first day of the roughly 10-month-long meet, raceway officials estimated attendance at about 1,000. Dwarfing this were the number of gamblers tapping away at video lottery terminals on the other side of the sprawling facility off Jefferson Street.
Nearly all of the machines in the racino were being used, creating an omnipresent digital cacophony. But few of those gaming in the darkened corridors of the racino seemed to be interested in navigating the maze of VLTs to find the harness races occurring only a short distance away; some said they weren’t even aware the harness track was starting its 73rd season on Sunday.
Fortunes, the restaurant at the raceway, bustled for brunch and the facility’s simulcast area in the mezzanine seemed to buzz. But attendance was sparse in the enclosed clubhouse overlooking the track, even though it was heated.
For horsemen like Trossbach, the small number of people taking an interest in harness racing is a little disappointing, considering the crowd gathered at the racino. And he sometimes wonders why there isn’t a greater effort to advertise the racing.
“It’s discouraging they don’t connect the two,” he said. “It’s even hard to find the track from in there ... I think they’re missing an opportunity.”
The lack of fans, however, hasn’t diminished the ability of horsemen to earn a living. Rather, profits from the bustling racino have allowed the raceway to substantially increase the purses for harness races, which in turn brings more money to the horsemen and a higher quality of standardbreds to the track.
The Trossbachs are anecdotal evidence of the positive impact the racino has caused in the standardbred industry. The family got out of the business as harness racing faltered during the late 1980s, only to return in 2005 — one year after the racino opened.
“I decided to try it one more time,” he said.
Annual purses at the track have increased from $2.5 million in 2003 to roughly $16 million in 2013. The first race of the season at the track brought a purse of about $30,000 for Aldrich and the owners of Lex Lugar, which ranked as one of the better opening-day prizes.
“If you extrapolate that out, it puts us in the position to equal or surpass last year’s opening day handle,” said Don Hoover, the secretary of racing for the raceway.
When VLT arrived at the raceway in 2004, there was a hope the crowds from the racino would save harness racing. And in fact, the increased purses have revived the harness racing industry in Saratoga Springs.
But the racino still hasn’t brought in the crowds of race fans some pundits predicted a decade ago. Hoover said attendance is up between 5 percent and 10 percent since the racino came on line, but nothing like the 40 percent boost some projected years ago.
“Unfortunately the numbers we were told by outside groups — so-called experts — it didn’t really come to fruition that we got as many people from the casino to the races,” he said. “It never happened like they predicted ten years ago.”
The lack of fans hasn’t bothered the horsemen, though. The bulk of the race spectators watch nationwide via simulcasts and the purses have grown more than the handle — the amount of money being wagered on racing — due to subsidies from the racino.
With fatter purses, the standardbred industry in Saratoga County has taken off. Tom McTygue, whose horses compete at the track, said the raceway’s resurgence had a ripple effect through the standardbred industry that has been felt across the county and state.
“Because of the purse structure compared to what we had 10 years ago, we’re racing for three times the money now,” said McTygue, who for many years was the Saratoga Springs public works commissioner.
The raceway could be approaching another crossroads this year, as state officials decide where to site four casinos with live table games approved by voters last year. The raceway has already indicated its intentions of seeking a casino license, which could bring another small boost to raceway attendance.
The opposite could happen if another Capital Region community gets the license, said McTygue, who is also member of Destination Saratoga, the advocacy group supporting the racino’s bid for live table games. He believes a casino elsewhere in the area will diminish the crowds at the racino, which will in turn cause the facility to cut back on the perks now afforded to the horsemen.
“If they lose 40 percent of their business in the first year, somewhere cuts will have to be made,” he said. “They could put us out of the harness business in four years.”