SARATOGA SPRINGS — Historically, the whole reason New York horse racing was moved to Saratoga in the summer was to avoid some of the expected heat at the New York City tracks.
But this year — or at least this weekend — the heat has followed the thoroughbreds upstate, with temperatures expected to be in the 90s through Sunday, and an official National Weather Service heat warning has been issued for Saturday, from noon to 8 p.m. When humidity is also factored in, temperatures are expected to feel as high as 110 degrees, according to the weather service.
An anticipated heat index of 105 degrees is when New York state guidelines recommend cancellation of racing cards.
The New York Racing Association announced at 3 p.m. Thursday — right around the time the NWS heat advisory was upgraded to a warning — that Saturday's racing program would be cancelled, for the sake of the equine athletes and their handlers.
"This decision prioritizes the health and welfare of our horses and riders," NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said in answer to questions Friday. "Safety is of the utmost importance and the number one priority to NYRA."
McKenna said NYRA is constantly evaluating racing conditions, including weather, and works with a professional meteorological service that develops real-time forecasts specifically for the specific location of Saratoga Race Course. It also follows the guidance from the state Gaming Commission, where the Office of Equine Medical Director, headed by Dr. Scott E. Palmer, has guidelines for heat management at race tracks.
Some people have questioned why racing wasn't also cancelled for Friday and Sunday — when temperatures were also expected to exceed 90 degrees — but NYRA officials said their meteorologists expected the heat to be less severe on those days.
While Saturday's heat index — which factors humidity into the thermostat reading — is expected to be between 105 and 110 degrees, McKenna said, "NYRA meteorologists are not predicting similar levels on Friday and Sunday, predominantly due to anticipated lower air temperature, as well as additional cloud cover and wind on both days."
The call to cancel racing on Saturday was NYRA's, but it was made in consultation with the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and following the Gaming Commission guidlines.
Those guidelines say that when the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration heat index reaches 105 degrees, the track veterinarian is to advise stewards, judges and management that dangerous conditions exist. NOAA is the parent agency of the National Weather Service.
The guidelines approved by Palmer explain that horses' body temperature rises during exercise, hot weather makes it more difficult for horses to cool down after exercise, and failure to properly cool down can cause the horse heat stress, or even heat exhaustion.
"The track veterinarian, stewards or judges, horseman's organizations and racetrack management should seek to cancel racing if local conditions are considered dangerous for horses and riders/drivers," the guidelines state. "Ideally, this decision should be made before the first race, whenever possible."
Training will be permitted Saturday on both the main track and Oklahoma training track, but both the horses and the people working at the track will receive extra care and attention.
"You take a common-sense approach, keep the fans on the horses, cold-hose them before you go to the paddock, cold-hose them again when you get in the paddock and right after the race. Keep them in the shade when you can, all the obvious things," trainer Todd Pletcher said after his horse Bourbon Mission won Friday's first race.
Pletcher said trainers will get their horses out for training early in the morning Saturday, before the beating sun brings on the heat advisory. "We'll try to get most of our major works in early, but, really, it shouldn't be excessively hot before training hours close," he said. "Most of these horses are, obviously, running in 80-plus degree weather, so training in the upper 70's, low 80's shouldn't be an issue."
On Friday and again Sunday, NYRA said veterinarians will be positioned throughout paddock, horse paths and the track to monitor all horses before and after races; extra water hoses will be available, including in the paddock and winner's circle; additional ice buckets will be available to horses and riders; extra water to the jockey quarters.
The Backstretch Employee Service Team, a non-profit that supports around 2,000 backstretch workers, will be providing donated water and its medical team prepared to deal with any heat-related illnesses, BEST Executive Director Paul Ruchames said.
To make up for the missed races, Sunday will feature a 13-race card, with the first post time at 12:20 p.m., and the first race a steeplechase canceled due to weather on Wednesday. NYRA will then run the entire 11-race Saturday card, including the $500,000 Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. The $300,000 Shuvee Handicap, already scheduled for Sunday, will also be run. Gates will open at 10:30 a.m.
Fans in attendance on Sunday are encouraged to stay hydrated and seek shade as needed, NYRA said.
Weather has vexed the track on some dates nearly every year, but the only other time extreme heat canceled the entire slate of Saratoga races was on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006, when temperatures rose to the upper 90s.
Tropical Storm Irene also canceled Saratoga's entire race day on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, the day after the Travers Stakes.
Gazette sportswriter Mike MacAdam contributed to this story.