For Jerome Brown, the last day of the meet at the Saratoga Race Course means more than just the track closing down for the year.
The Mechanicville man's son is trainer Chad Brown, a rising star in racing, and the end of the meet means he'll soon be off to other tracks around the country: first to Belmont on Long Island, then Kentucky and finally California for the Breeder's Cup in late October. Though their son will pop back to the area periodically to train horses over the next few weeks, Brown and wife Patti realize they'll see a lot less of him as fall beckons.
“Still, it's an honor to be his dad,” the elder Brown said Monday as his son sauntered over to his picnic table in the track's backyard.
For many, the conclusion of the meet at Saratoga is bittersweet — a time to close the book on summer and return to normal life after six whirlwind weeks of racing in the Spa City. It's bidding farewell to all the faces and characters that became commonplace; acquaintances that extended from the people who sat religiously at the same picnic table each day of the meet to the friendly cashier always working the same concession stand.
“I'm going to be happy to be back with my family and grandkids,” said Don Taylor of Houston, a diehard fan and handicapper who spent the entire meet living in the city, “but I'm going to miss this place.”
Close friend Robert Hitsous of Brooklyn agreed. Even if his wagers didn't quite work out this summer, the time he spent at the track was well worth it.
“It's like another family,” he said. “I'm going to miss that.”
The meet appeared to be a success for the New York Racing Association. Attendance at the track was at 972,018, according to unofficial figures, meaning the 40-day meet had the highest turnout since an extra four days of racing was added in 2009 and among the highest since more than 1 million people turned out for the meet in 2003.
In addition, NYRA realized a boost in concession sales and an increase in the on-track handle, though exact figures weren't available Monday evening. NYRA did see a decrease in the off-track handle, something President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Kay blamed partially on the loss of simulcast betting at several other tracks that closed on several days during the Saratoga meet.
“Attendance is up, on-track handle is up, sale of food and beverage is up,” he said. “It's all pretty good stuff.”
NYRA was counting season pass holders among its daily attendance tallies, meaning roughly 6,700 people were factored into the figures regardless of whether they were actually at the track. NYRA did, however, stop factoring in attendance spikes that could be attributed to so-called spinners — fans who buy multiple admissions on giveaway days to amass stockpiles of the featured item.
Though pleased with the bump in gate receipts, Kay said the metrics of admission shouldn't be used as a barometer of success. For instance, he said, a giveaway earlier this year had roughly 24,000 fewer paid admissions than the prior year, but saw a 6.6 percent increase in on-track handle.
“I find how much we're collecting in revenue is more important than how many people [come through the gate],” he said.
The meet as a whole was an overwhelming success in Kay's estimation. Unlike prior years, the summer weather almost fully cooperated with thoroughbred racing at the track, meaning there were no racing days lost to extreme heat or rain.
Even when bad weather did beckon, it was often after everyone had left the track for the day. In late July, a bolt of lightning that splintered a towering pine in the backyard of the track struck 15 minutes after the final race and after much of the crowd had thinned — something that likely prevented serious injury.
Rain this summer did prompt NYRA to move nearly two dozen turf races back onto the dirt. As a result, races that were scheduled to have a field of 11 or 12 horses went off with about half as many.
But competition at the meet was high for most other races. Kay said NYRA delivered on a promise to schedule fewer races so that the horses competing would be of a higher caliber.
“We made a conscious decision at the beginning to say we're going to run fewer races so we would have better competition, and we've done that,” he said.
The meet received accolades from some of the small businesses at the track. Chef-owner David Britton of Pies on Wheels said he did bang-up business all season, something he attributed to both the good weather and NYRA.
“This was really a super meet,” he said. “Everybody was on the ball and ready to go.”
The meet also served as a send-off for legendary track announcer Tom Durkin, who retired Sunday. On his first day of retirement, he spent the afternoon mingling with fans and signing autographs by the Big Red Spring in the backyard.
Meanwhile, another legend was racing on the track. After somewhat of a lackluster start to the meet, Hall of Fame jockey Edgar Prado finished off the day with two winners, including in the last race of the day.
“It's been a great meet for a lot of people here,” said a mud-covered Prado, fresh from his victory on Capital City, “but we have to move on. The show continues.”
Bugler Sam Grossman said leaving Saratoga each year is tough, especially after one like this year. He said the combination of good weather, great racing and adoring fans always makes it difficult to say good-bye.
“I'm Willy Wonka for six weeks,” he said with a smile. “Sure I'll miss it.”