For much of Saturday, Saratoga Springs will more than double its 27,000 population.
But in the summer it’s a tourist town — Saturday’s Travers won’t be the first big race and that evening’s SPAC show the first big concert the Saratoga Springs Police Department has ever seen. Officials say they’re ready to keep the city’s residents and the thousands of visitors safe — and to keep traffic moving, at least slowly, though everyone acknowledges there will be lots of congestion, both around the track and downtown.
Even casual racing fans are expected flock to Saratoga Race Course or the city’s downtown viewing parties to catch a piece of American Pharoah’s quest for a historic victory in the Travers Stakes — and then the legendary bands Chicago and Earth Wind and Fire will be at Saratoga Performing Arts Center that night, drawing thousands more people.
“There’s been an extreme amount of planning that’s gone into security, not just for the racetrack but for the concert and for the downtown venues,” said Assistant Police Chief John Catone. “We expect it to be a safe and enjoyable occasion for everyone.”
The city already increases police staffing levels in the summertime, and a majority of the department’s officers will be working over the weekend. State police will also have extra patrols for traffic details outside the city, some of them specifically dedicated to Travers traffic, said Troop G spokesman Trooper Mark Cepiel.
The New York Racing Association, meanwhile, is telling the 50,000 ticketed patrons expected to attend the sold-out, daylong racing card not just to expect traffic delays on routes to the track, but to be prepared for enhanced magnetic screening upon entering the grounds. Gates open at 7 a.m., but there will be no breakfast on the clubhouse porch that day, and no backstretch tram tours either today or Saturday. Saturday’s first race is at 11:45 a.m., more than an hour earlier than usual.
NYRA officials said they’ve been working closely with law enforcement, transportation planners and first responders at all levels of government to be sure Travers Day goes smoothly.
“The safety of our fans, our equine athletes, our horsemen and horsewomen, and all of our employees is the top priority of the New York Racing Association,” George Venizelos, NYRA’s vice president of security, said in a statement.
The state Department of Transportation has 17 variable-message electronic signs at the ready along the 30-mile stretch of the Northway between Albany and Saratoga Springs, said DOT spokeswoman Gina DiSarro. She said the regional traffic center in Albany will monitor traffic conditions in real time, and will be able to change sign messages immediately to warn of new delays or suggest alternatives if an incident occurs.
But even if there are no accidents or breakdowns, traffic is going to move slowly just because of the volume of people coming to Saratoga, and the backups at exits 13 and 14 will be long. That can lead to people using the U-turn strips across the median, going up the wrong ramps to get off the highway and other behavior that causes headaches for police agencies.
“The biggest thing is people are going to have to be patient,” Cepiel said.
He also said there will be state troopers specifically dedicated to security, though he wouldn’t say whether they will be in uniform or plain clothes, or what role they might play.
”When you look at world events, there are heightened security concerns,” he said.
In general, Catone said, the public needs to understand that there’s going to be traffic congestion around the track no matter what police do. “Understand that everyone is trying to get to the same place at the same time,” he said.
Catone said Exit 14, the closest Northway entrance to the track, is going to be the most congested exit. Police would like to spread the drivers going up the Northway from the Albany area equally among the city’s three exits — 13, 14 and 15. People coming from the north should leave the interstate at Exit 15 and use the C.V. Whitney Highway (Route 50) to reach East Avenue, which goes to the track, he suggested.
Between 2 and 9 p.m., U-turns and left turns on Union Avenue from Nelson Avenue to Henning Road will be prohibited. All traffic on East Avenue will be directed north. In the neighborhoods around the track, which are filled with private parking lots, restrictions on street parking, blocking driveways or fire hydrants will be strictly enforced with tickets and towing, police said.
For the Chicago/Earth, Wind and Fire concert at SPAC, parking lots open at 4:30 p.m., and state park police will direct those arriving to parking throughout Saratoga Spa State Park. Police said those attending the concert should use Exit 13N, or if coming from the south, routes 9 and 50. After 6 p.m., police warned, those going through downtown will experience long delays.
“We just ask people to be patient. They will see a strong law enforcement presence out there,” Catone said.