SARATOGA SPRINGS -- It's official: The number of weeks of thoroughbred horse racing will increase from six to eight this summer, but the total number of race days will remain the same.
The New York Racing Association on Thursday confirmed what was reported last weekend: the Saratoga meet this year will open on Thursday, July 11, and run through Labor Day, Sept. 2. Racing will be five days a week, with Mondays and Tuesdays dark.
Downtown merchants are optimistic about the new dates extending what is always their busiest time of year.
"We're hoping that it is a positive for everyone. It will definitely be a change in foot traffic," said Maddy Zanetti, a partner in Impressions of Saratoga on Broadway and president of the Downtown Business Association.
NYRA officials acknowledge the change is driven by the impact on Belmont Park as a new arena for the National Hockey League's New York Islanders begins construction on the property.
"Given the initial and proposed timelines for the potential construction of a new arena at Belmont Park, we believe it is the responsible action to move our racing operations to Saratoga Race Course slightly earlier than usual this summer," said NYRA Interim CEO David O'Rourke.
The summer racing schedule, which is normally announced around the end of the year, is coming out late because of the uncertainty surrounding the Islanders' arena plans.
The extended meet will have a major impact on rental housing, motels and hotels, and restaurants and downtown businesses -- though the city's sidewalks are already busier earlier in the summer than they used to be.
"The city stands firmly ready to support NYRA in any way we can," Mayor Meg Kelly said. "The new schedule will bring both anticipated and unanticipated benefits to our summer racing season, and we will use the city's resources to make it even more successful than before."
The meet, which since 2010 has offered 40 racing days with horses running six days a week for six weeks, last summer attracted more than 1.1 million fans, according to NYRA figures -- the fourth consecutive year of attendance topping one million.
Major stake races, the Grade I Whitney and the 150th anniversary Travers race -- the latter of which serves as the highlight of the summer in which Triple Crown competitors run -- are scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 3, and Saturday, Aug. 24, respectively.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, noted that the chamber starts its major tourism promotion efforts on the county's behalf in March, so the dates are out in time for the chamber to promote them.
"Knowing the dates, we now have the opportunity to attract people to the city for two extra weekends," Shimkus said. "Our hospitality sector is ready to go, and they are looking forward to having a couple of extra weekends to fill."
He acknowledged finding people to work in the restaurants and hotels for extra weeks may be a challenge, "but it's a challenge right now, in January and February. That is the biggest single challenge we face."
He said he's also heard from trainers and horsemen who are pleased with plans for a less-intense five-day racing schedule. "Overall, I'm hearing mostly positive things," Shimkus said.
It's generally agreed, as well, that June and the weeks ahead of the race meet in July have already become busier the city than they were a few years ago.
"The downtown has become a destination by itself that people really want to visit for its unique restaurants and stores," Shimkus said.
Zanetti said she talked to O'Rourke last week, and he was very forthcoming and positive about the changes, which are likely to continue in 2020.
"We're already busy in June and July," she said. "We're hoping that it will be good for everybody and we'll make it work."
Saratoga Springs Police Department spokesman Lt. Robert Jillson said the department expects to be able to meet any additional police needs with the existing staff, though he acknowledged there could be an impact on overtime spending -- but he said police staffing it are already impacted in July by the Fourth of July, SPAC concerts, and other special events.
"We're planning for it, but we really haven’t had a sitdown," Jillson said. "We have a lot more events. The city does a great job marketing itself, but as P.D. we expect it, and we will be prepared for the racing days."