SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Saratoga Race Course begins its third racing week today.
The races began July 11 -- tied with 1882 for the earliest start in track history -- and the New York Racing Association has changed the game. Instead of one dark day -- Tuesday -- horses, riders and fans are now staying home Monday as well.
People are going to the track when the gates are open, according to figures recently released by NYRA. The total paid attendance for opening weekend -- July 11 through Sunday, July 14 -- was 105,690, down from the 109,395 who paid to enter the track during the first four days of the 2018 season.
The all-sources handle for opening weekend totaled $73,441,101, more than the $71,671,188 all-sources handle collected during 2018's first four days.
Weather has not been kind so far. Heavy rain hit the track during the middle of the card opening day, and another soaker doused the track on Wednesday, July 17. Brutal heat caused NYRA officials to cancel racing on Saturday, July 20.
Some in Saratoga are still waiting for the seasonal sizzle to start.
Marianne Barker, who owns Impressions gift store on Broadway, said the excitement in town -- the buzz and energy that usually accompanies the race season -- has yet to arrive.
"We heard a lot of people say they were leaving after Friday," Barker said, "and we heard a lot of people even [Monday] say, 'Well, we didn't realize that [cancellation] was happening.' There was no Monday racing. We were steady [Monday] morning, not as steady as we would have been had they raced on Monday."
Barker said buyers visited Friday, but so did people looking for directions.
"We gave a lot of directions to Sacandaga, the Hudson, the Battlefield (Saratoga National Historical Park and Battlefield in Stillwater), Lake George," Barker said. "It was like, 'What are we going to do tomorrow?' We were like, 'There are tons of things to do.' I think people made the best of it, but it has not been the normal kick-off to racing that we would experience."
Barker doesn't see any reason for worry.
"We don't worry until it's all done," she said. "There's nothing we can really do about it. Our take on it is, we just do the very best we can every day and planning for the best and hoping for the best."
Kareem NeJame, general manager at Sperry's restaurant on Caroline Street, said this past weekend seemed more like opening weekend.
"What I think happened was, unless you are a Saratoga resident or a real avid follower of the race season here," NeJame said, "I just don't think a lot of people were aware the meet was extended by 10 days and still banked on this past weekend being opening weekend."
NeJame said the same thing happened several years ago, when the New York Racing Association extended the meet from four to six weeks.
"The first couple weeks were slower than a typical opening weekend or week," NeJame said, "and then once people realized the following year and years after it was six weeks and it got back to normal.
"This year they announced it kind of late and I don't think people from other regions or across the country or world for that matter knew it was starting July 11 this year," NeJame also said. "This last weekend was markedly busier than the previous weekend and even this past weekend with the heat and cancelled races on Saturday, it was busier but not as busy as it should have been."
Like Barker, NeJame sees no cause for concern.
"I think we just got some bad luck with the heat wave," he said. "A lot of people saw it was happening, saw the races got cancelled for Saturday and cancelled plans to come to town maybe. Once the weather straightens itself out, I think the rest of the season will be back to normal and I think starting next year people will have realized the meet is a little bit longer and opening weekend will be back to normal."
On Monday, Sperry's dealt with a day without races and rainy weather. NeJame expected the combination would mean about 60 or 70 visitors to the restaurant, which seats 240 indoors and outdoors.
"With races on a Monday last year, there would have been between 150 and 200 guests," he said.
People are visiting the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, located on Union Avenue across the street from the race course.
Brien Bouyea, a spokesman for the museum, said attendance numbers are compiled at the end of each month. So far, he said, numbers have been fine.
"I would say our attendance has been as solid as it was last year, if not up a little bit," Bouyea said.
The extra day of rest for racers may be helping.
"I think having the second dark day, especially for a museum, people are looking for more things to do when the track is closed and I think the museum provides an opportunity for people to do something in town," Bouyea said.
Amy Smith, general manager of the Saratoga Arms hotel, said her Broadway business has enjoyed good occupancy during the first eight racing days.
"It's been a mix of people," she said. "Some are going to the races, others are visiting kids at Adirondack camps during camp visitation weekends."
Still others had seats for the New York City Ballet.
Smith said her guests have reported a "nice energy" in downtown. "It's a big experiment this year, we just don't know," she said of the new Monday-Tuesday dark schedule, which gave racing fans eight weekends during the 40-day meet.
She added that Sundays have been quieter than in past years.
"Again, it's earlier in the season," Smith said. "If you talk to me in three weeks, I might have a different story."
Other business people have seen a modest beginning to Saratoga's traditional boom time.
"I think it's a slow start," said Paul O'Donnell, who owns Celtic Treasures on Broadway. "People didn't have a heads-up a year ago and most people make their reservations a year in advance, I think it's to be expected. I'm not shocked about a light turnout on the opening week of the track."
O'Donnell thinks big crowds -- and big numbers -- are coming. He's already seen a banner day, a shopping event that happened during Monday's washout. "It was crazy," he said. "They had no where else to go in the rain, so people were shopping heartily."
Bob Lee, whose family operates the Wishing Well restaurant in Wilton and Brook Tavern on Union Avenue in Saratoga, will wait for more race days.
"I think it's difficult to characterize the success of the meet after seven or eight days and I think everybody is sort of trying to feel their way through the new schedule," Lee said.
If racing fans are not showing up Mondays and Tuesday, other people are.
"What I've seen the last two Mondays and Tuesdays, I'm seeing local people who generally tend to stay away from the restaurants in track season, they're coming out now because they're realizing restaurants aren't under as much pressure as they are when there's six days of racing," Lee said.
Lee is not worried.
"We're fortunate in Saratoga to have this gem, really, of racing, and NYRA is going to do what is best for their business," Lee said. "It's up to the people in Saratoga and businesses in Saratoga to sort of adjust their sales and do what they need to do to have a successful summer."
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]