The curtain went up on the 152nd Saratoga Race Course meet two days early, and not in a theatrical way that will bring applause from some fans.
Concerned about crowds milling about on the Union and Nelson avenue sidewalks when the 152nd meet opens on Thursday, Saratoga Springs officials recommended that "temporary privacy fencing" be draped along the metal fences around the track, blocking the view inside.
Based on New York state guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, spectators will not be allowed on the grounds, and it appears unlikely that that policy will change before the meet closes on Sept. 7.
Anticipating that fans would make do by camping out on the Union and Nelson sidewalks, Saratoga Springs officials asked the New York Racing Association to install plastic sheeting on the fencelines, work that was being done as the city and NYRA held a joint press conference on the ground floor of the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon.
The city and NYRA encouraged fans to watch the racing at home on TV or online, and to exercise social distancing and safe practices if choosing to watch at bars, restaurants and viewing parties.
"The critical part of this meet is that we celebrate racing, but we celebrate it at home," city of Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said. "The city cannot have people come to the track and try to watch racing.
"In fact, we have asked NYRA to put up privacy fencing around the track so you won't be able to see in, and they have been very cooperative and done that. That is for the collective safety of the community and also to make sure we can continue to celebrate racing this year and every year to come."
"Other than that [screens], there isn't going to be anything that's so restrictive that we're going to be violating anybody's rights," Saratoga Springs assistant chief of police John Catone said. "But we want to be safe. We want NYRA to have a successful meet, but we also don't want to put ourselves in [a] position like other states now where they open too early, they didn't control the pandemic and now their numbers have risen dramatically."
Catone said the police department will have two officers assigned to the track, one for traffic control and the other with a bomb-sniffing dog, which is standard for a normal racing season.
He said social media posts the department has monitored show a groundswell of desire from the public to catch a glimpse of live racing from outside the fences.
"Yes, there has been some stuff on social media," he said. "We have someone in the police department who tracks social media, and along with all the other stuff we're tracking, some of that has popped up. There's been a discussion about the fans, especially on Nelson Avenue, so this was one way to keep from large gatherings.
"There's the issue with social distancing. There's the issue with pedestrian traffic. We're also worried about too many people being out there, stepping out into traffic and getting hit by cars. So there's many issues that go with it."
"That's something that just came about last week and, as has been pointed out by the assistant chief, it's a very fluid operation right now," NYRA vice president of operations Glen Kozak said. "NYRA is just happy to have the opportunity to be up here and have this great race course and be able to operate up here."
While the prospect of a limited number of fans being allowed on the grounds before closing day seems remote, NYRA has offered proposals to state officials by which a limited number of owners would be permitted on the backstretch to visit their horses, in the stands when they race, or both.
"We've come up with a plan that is fluid," Catone said. "What we do on Thursday may be different than what we do next Wednesday. That's all going to be based on what opportunities NYRA is afforded down the road, should the state allow expansion, whether it be ownership coming in, or fans to any degree.
"And it's also going to be based on what we see occurring over the next week or so in terms of people who want to show up and try and catch live racing from the back chute or the top of the far turn. We're going to deal with it accordingly."
All of the live racing will be broadcast on the "Saratoga Live" program, available on both Fox Sports and MSG networks.
"Keeping your distance this summer will bring us one step closer to our ultimate and collective goal of defeating this virus and welcoming back our loyal fans by the thousands for an opening day celebration like no other in 2021," NYRA communications director Pat McKenna said.
"The enthusiasm for the Saratoga meet is unparalleled. It's a painful conversation. These are the kinds of conversations we hope to never repeat moving forward. It's what makes it all the more important to adhere to the social distancing guidelines, to wear a mask, to behave responsibly throughout the summer meet."