SARATOGA SPRINGS — I usually don’t bet on big long shots, but I’ll take a stab here.
Saratoga Race Course is all about tradition. You see it and hear it and feel it around every corner of the 153-year-old venue.
People routinely say things like “Happy Alabama Day” and “Happy Travers Day.” They get the same picnic table every year, or they take a sip from the Big Red Spring, for luck. They bet the grey. Always bet the grey.
A more recent tradition is the act of speculating on whether the powers that be will change the configuration of the meet, expanding it once more.
“You hear that rumor every year,” is a common refrain.
There seems to be a difference this year, though. People aren’t asking each other so much anymore, they’re telling each other.
There’s a sense of resignation. As one horse owner said to me, “So, they’re finally going to do it, huh?”
Welp. My answer used to be “I don’t think so,” mostly because there wasn’t any specific impetus to prompt the New York Racing Association
to lengthen the Saratoga meet, other than greed. But these days there are enough moving parts and developments on the horizon for NYRA’s three tracks that I’ll take a stab that the meet gets expanded next year.
A friend of mine who pays close attention to these types of issues likened it to dominoes being lined up. I’ll go ahead and steal that analogy.
For the record, NYRA hasn’t publicly acknowledged that this subject has even been discussed, much less that there might be an embryonic stage of a planning process.
Since the franchise has been returned to privately managed status, board meetings aren’t subject to state open meetings laws.
But the tracks are and will be in a substantial state of flux, that’s no secret, and what happens at Aqueduct and Belmont Park should have an impact on how they do business at Saratoga.
The scenario that has gained the most traction among those wondering about the future of Saratoga is that the meet will stay at 40 racing days, but will push its way back on the calendar to the Fourth of July weekend to accommodate five race days and two dark days per week instead of six and one, respectively.
The calculus makes sense, while offering a tradeoff between maintaining the 40 race days that constitute a “boutique” meet and using one facility while one of the others is undergoing changes.
Why would it happen next year, when the rumors have proven hollow for so long?
Because the wheels are already in motion marking change in the three-track landscape. At Aqueduct, NYRA is replacing its winterized inner dirt track with another turf course, while changing the composition of the outer track to allow for winter racing.
That could be the first domino, setting up an opportunity for some form of renovation or reconstruction at Belmont Park, which has two virtually empty parking lots covering 36 acres waiting to be developed.
Empire State Development has issued a request for proposals that are due on Sept. 28 to get ideas on how to use that part of the state’s property. Among those that have already been floated is a new arena for the New York Islanders.
Aqueduct, where Genting wants to do a full-blown expansion of its casino operation, could serve as a stopgap while Belmont is reshaped, with an extended Saratoga meet picking up some of the slack on the calendar. If Genting has its way, you can kiss Aqueduct goodbye as a racetrack someday, which would leave NYRA with just Belmont and Saratoga for racing.
Of course, you don’t just snap your fingers and make these types of changes, which makes an eight-week Saratoga meet in 2018 a long shot.
Trainer Rick Violette, a NYRA board member and president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, addressed some of the speculation and possible scenarios while serving on a panel called “The Newest NYRA and the Future” at Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute on Equine Racing and Gaming on Aug. 9.
“There will be a number of years where we will be racing eight months, nine months at Aqueduct,” he predicted. “I’m assuming there will be an extended stay up [in Saratoga] if we ever have to close down Belmont. Whether it’s July and August. That’s the reality. We’re not going to race 10 1/2 months at Aqueduct when we have this facility to use. That certainly has to be on the table and open to discussions. I certainly can’t see us being here forever for two or three months, but for a couple of years it’s a real possibility that has to happen.”
Why not 2018?
While NYRA hasn’t publicly discussed any grand scheme, senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza told the Thoroughbred Daily News in May that NYRA is “working on a much larger plan” that could be announced in the coming months.
The meet has been expanded several times since 1962, when the meet was 24 days. It went to 30 in 1991, 34 in 1994, 36 in 1997 and to the current late-July-to-Labor-Day 40 in 2009.
Running at Saratoga for two months would get mixed reviews. Local businesses probably wouldn’t mind the extra two weeks, but there are people who live here who already hate how the city is overrun with tourists and out-of-towners, regardless of the undeniable economic impact of the meet. Downstaters who work at the track suddenly would have to account for two more weeks of rent and expenses.
In an email response, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president Todd Shimkus said he was assured by NYRA board member Georgeanna Nugent that no changes are currently being considered for Saratoga.
“I try not to comment on hypothetical possibilities,” he wrote. “As we’ve demonstrated often, the Chamber will be a visible and vocal advocate for anything that will help protect the future of the Saratoga Race Course. Everyone I talk to wants what is best for Saratoga and recognizes that our community hosts the best race meeting in the world. I trust that what Georgie told me and has said publicly is true and that Saratoga will have a say should any specific change ever be considered in the future.”
Then there’s always the
legitimate concern about “diluting the product” by stretching a good thing over a longer period of time. As popular as the meet continues to be, there is such a condition as Saratoga Fatigue. NYRA clusters the bulk of its top-quality racing on the weekends, which would thin out to some degree in a longer meet.
“The rumors are flying, as usual,” trainer Jim Bond said. “The horsemen are always the last to know what is going to happen, which is a shame, because sometimes I still think we put the show on, but I guess not.”