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Saratoga meet expansion on the horizon ... or not

Saratoga meet expansion on the horizon ... or not

Even if an earlier start in July doesn't happen in 2019, NYRA must be taking a hard look at it, and whether it would be profitable
Saratoga meet expansion on the horizon ... or not
Horses leave the starting gate for the 2018 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- There's been a huge crane, hiding in plain sight, on the first turn at Saratoga Race Course, where they're constructing an exclusive three-story building called the 1863 Club, where the At the Rail Pavilion used to be.

I say "hiding" because, except for those who live in the neighborhood, Saratoga is in hibernation from the world of horse racing.

Training won't begin on the Oklahoma Training Track until the spring, and racing won't begin again at the racetrack, built in 1864, until ... who knows. Not me, anyway.

If the New York Racing Association sticks to the schedule it has offered in recent years, working back from a closing day of Labor Day, with six days a week and 40 total days of racing, the 2019 meet would start on Friday, July 19. Tuesdays off, big stakes races tentpoled on the weekend, kind of a ghost town in the middle -- you know the drill.

What is hidden behind the closed doors of NYRA board meetings lately is whether they are talking about changing that, based on a threadbare notion that Saratoga eventually will muscle its way deeper into the heart of the summer calendar.

WNYT first reported on Nov. 29 that NYRA was considering a July 11 start to the season, with five racing days and two dark days and a meet expanded to almost eight weeks from early July to Labor Day. The station has since backed off that assertion, in light of NYRA statements from spokesman Pat McKenna after NYRA board meetings the last two weeks.

The Dec. 5 version, below, echoed the Nov. 29 one:

"Contrary to recent media reports, the agenda for today’s meeting of the NYRA Board of Directors did not include a proposal about the racing calendar for the 2019 Saratoga season. Any reporting suggesting otherwise is completely erroneous.

"We certainly appreciate the interest and passion that surrounds Saratoga and will formally release the 2019 race dates as soon as they are finalized."

Although NYRA has waited until early December a few times in recent years to release the Saratoga dates, the calendar for 2018 came out on Nov. 18 last year, which leads me to believe that something is afoot. Even if nothing changes, it's a safe bet that it at least is being discussed in earnest.

Why would NYRA mess with a good thing?

They'd do it if they believed it would be a better thing. For them.

The number of racing days at Saratoga, which had been 24 for decades, has gradually grown since the 1980s. In 1975, the dark day was switched from Sunday to Tuesday, and in 1982, they ran 27 days with no dark days (what).

It expanded to five weeks and 30 racing days (opening on a Wednesday) in 1991, then was briefly at 34 before going to 36 in 1997. The standard became 40 in 2010.

And it has worked, for NYRA and the fans, even if a stronghold of traditionalists (myself included) doesn't always like the decisions NYRA makes.

People have loved the "boutique" nature of the Saratoga meet since they first started running thoroughbreds there in 1863. It has always been a dazzling meteorite streaking across the racing sky.

Extending the meet to almost eight weeks would rub some of that luster away. But in the shifting landscape of racing, which faces an increasingly difficult task of maintaining a strong foothold in sports betting, NYRA's cash cow theoretically would be even more lucrative, even without adding racing days.

Betting is the engine behind the sport, and a longer meet could give horsemen a better opportunity to run their horses multiple times, increasing field size, which makes for a more attractive wagering prospect. Saratoga's already astronomical betting handle could get a boost with bigger fields.

So it would make sense to expand Saratoga, if NYRA is convinced that it would help handle to a degree that would be profitable.

Still, I'll believe that the Saratoga meet extension is happening when I see it.

In the meantime, it's Dec. 13, and we still don't have 2019 Saratoga dates, which suggests that more than the usual considerations are being looked at. It's also important to note that the NYRA statement in response to the WNYT report only denies that the topic was on the board meeting agenda.

That doesn't mean they aren't taking a hard look at it, and talking about it.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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