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Saratoga track attendance drops, but handle is up

Saratoga track attendance drops, but handle is up

City leaders will assess five-day racing in coming weeks
Saratoga track attendance drops, but handle is up
The start of the 4th race at Saratoga Race Course on closing day Monday.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SARATOGA SPRINGS  -- It was another historic Saratoga thoroughbred meet: The New York Racing Association reported a record all-source handle, the 1863 Club luxury clubhouse opened, and the 40 days of racing were for the first time spread over eight weekends.

But while a new total all-source handle record was set at more than $705.3 million, there was some bad news for NYRA: Paid race course attendance was 1,056,000, down about 68,000 people -- or 6 percent -- from a year ago. However, there was one fewer racing day because of a heat-related cancellation of all racing on July 20, which was a Saturday. Saturdays normally have the best attendance of the week.

Community leaders and businesses are just starting to assess what the longer meet, which included two dark days per week -- Monday and Tuesday -- meant for the community. The season that wrapped up on Labor Day began on July 11, marking the earliest Saratoga Race Course opening in modern times.

Paid attendance had exceeded 1.1 million people in the three previous years, but before Saratoga first broke the 1 million attendance figure in 2015, attendance averaged about 900,000 per year, based on NYRA figures.

On-track handle was $146.6 million, down from last year's $148.8 million -- but again, with one fewer racing day and some other races canceled. The on-track handle record for Saratoga was $157.6 million in 2015, when NYRA benefited from good weather and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running in the Travers Stakes.

There's talk that downtown businesses might benefit more if the dark days next year were Tuesday and Wednesday, which could give restaurants that saw business drop on Sunday nights a boost.

NYRA issued a statement Monday highlighting that the meet had a record all-source handle, which is the amount bet on all locations that accept bids.

"I think going by what NYRA put out, they had a pretty good meet," said Mayor Meg Kelly. "We have to wait to talk to our downtown business association and restaurants to see how they did."

NYRA has traditionally raced at Saratoga six days a week, with only Tuesdays dark. NYRA set the eight-week, five-day racing schedule this year to shift activity away from Belmont, where a new NHL hockey arena is under construction. That work is also expected to mean another eight-week racing schedule here in 2020, and what will happen in years beyond that is unclear.

"I think overall it really felt like a very good season, but we have to wait and see where the numbers fall," Kelly said.

NYRA reported that its all-sources handle topped $700 million for the first time, despite the July 20 heat-related cancellation and the cancellation of several races over the course of the meet due to severe thunderstorms.

The total racing handle of more than $705.3 million was an increase of 7 percent from last year, and 4.2 percent more than in 2017, the previous record. 

"This has been a truly outstanding meet highlighted by the traditional recipe that sets Saratoga apart: world-class thoroughbred racing and entertainment," NYRA CEO and President David O'Rourke said in a statement released Monday night.

NYRA officials were returning to Belmont on Tuesday and unavailable for comment on any possible changes in next year's schedule.

Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus said he's heard anecdotally that some restaurants saw business go up and some saw it go down, but it's hard to draw conclusions until sales tax and room occupancy tax receipts become available in mid- to late September.

"We're going to have a meeting in early October with the key folks in the community, when we have the numbers, and we can discuss them and make recommendations to NYRA for what we think might benefit the downtown businesses and restaurants," Shimkus said.

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center had a strong season, with some large concerts that also helped bring people into the city, Shimkus said. It's already known that hotel room demand was up slightly in July, but the August numbers aren't yet available.

"I know it was a good summer, but not whether it was a great one," Shimkus said. "We'll look at the numbers once we have them. We really don't have them now."

There was more news to this year's meet than dollars and horses, though.

Legendary racing supporter and philanthropist Marylou Whitney died on July 19, at the age of 93 -- an event that was announced on the track's loudspeakers, leading to a moment of silence, and then to numerous public tributes in the following days. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made his first-ever visit to the track on Aug. 3 to announce plans to build the Marylou Whitney Backstretch Pavilion as a permanent home for the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation Program founded by Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.






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