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Saratoga Race Course breaks attendance record in 2016

Saratoga Race Course breaks attendance record in 2016

Saratoga Race Course set a new attendance record again this year, breaking the record set just last
Saratoga Race Course breaks attendance record in 2016
Patrons enjoy watching the races from the backyard on big screens at the Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs on Aug. 19. The track drew 1,123,544 paid admissions this year, up 5.4 percent from 2015, setting a new attendance record.
Photographer: Erica Miller

Saratoga Race Course set a new attendance record again this year, breaking the record set just last year.

The track drew 1,123,544 paid admissions this year, up 5.4 percent from 2015, even without the anticipation surrounding last year's appearance by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

There were 1,065,000 people through the turnstiles during the 2015 meet, a number officials last year attributed to good weather and the American Pharoah phenomena. Good weather most days again this season helped the attendance total.

The track has drawn around 900,000 visitors in recent years, with last year being the first in which the attendance total hit one million.

The total handle wagered during the meet was $647.2 million, which was down $1 million from last year, when the New York Racing Association track saw a double-digit increase in betting, at least in part due to the excitement and interest brought to the sport by American Pharoah. Pharoah raced - and lost - in last year's Travers Stakes.

But while the attendance and financial news was good, the number of horse deaths at the track so far this year has raised new safety concerns and has gotten the attention of the state Gaming Commission, which regulates horse racing in the state.

With attendance on any given date at Saratoga capped at 50,000, this year saw more than 48,000 fans turn out for the Travers on Aug. 27, and more than 49,000 paid admissions this past Sunday, which was the last of four product giveaways at the track.

The 40-day meet that began on July 22 saw generally good, dry weather - although NYRA officials noted that a severe storms this year cause a partial cancellation of Saturday racing for the first time in the track's history, and several Sundays were affected by stormy weather, which probably reduced the betting handle.

"Even with these challenges, the New York Racing Association generated total handle in line with last year's record-shattering numbers," said NYRA CEO and President Chris Kay. "Our success is a reflection of the confidence that our fans and horseplayers have in our ability to deliver a reliable and consistent product of world-class thoroughbred racing and great entertainment."

NYRA launched initiatives this year to make new and inexperienced horseplayers feel more comfortable, including a Bets Squad to educate fans about basic wagering techniques and terminology and handicapping seminars and analysis on Saturdays, when the track traditionally draws some of his biggest crowds to the most renowned of its stakes races.

For the second year in a row, the Travers reaffirmed Saratoga's reputation as the "Graveyard of Favorites," when the lightly raced Arrogate won the Travers over more experienced horses, and set a new Travers speed record. Last year, of course, American Pharoah went down to defeat in the Travers despite his Triple Crown pedigree.

But the meet also saw the deaths of six thoroughbreds following injuries during racing, and six others have died of injuries sustained during training at the Oklahoma training track since May. Two others have died of what the state Gaming Commission said were non-racing causes. Two more horses suffered injuries during Monday's racing program.

While the death totals are roughly in line with what the track saw in each of the last two years, they have prompted new complaints from animal rights activists, and the state's Equine Safety Review Board is reviewing all of the deaths, according to the Gaming Commission.

"While any equine fatality on the grounds of a New York race track is significant, this spike is a great concern for the commission staff and the New York Racing Association," state Gaming Commission Chairman Robert Williams said at a commission meeting last week in Saratoga Springs.

Williams said 10 of the deaths followed skeletal-muscular injuries to the horse, one was accidental, one was due to infectious disease and two were caused by sudden cardiac arrest after exercise.

The commission's Equine Safety Review Board is reviewing the deaths and will make a report in the coming weeks, Williams said. He said a preliminary review doesn't indicate track surface conditions were a factor in the incidents.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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