Pricci's Saratoga Diary
For the next 40 days of New York racing, Executive Editor John Pricci will provide his insights on all things Saratoga for the 35th consecutive year in his original "Saratoga Diary." It debuted in 1977, the year Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and Jatski was placed first in the Travers Stakes following the disqualification of Run Dusty Run. So keep up with the cold exactas, hot issues, and build your own stable of live horses, all from John's unique perspective, exclusively at

Sunday, September 04, 2016

SARATOGA: Too Much of a Good Thing?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 1, 2016—

Dear Diary,

This is the middle leg of Saratoga’s getaway weekend. By Monday evening, Saratoga 147 will be history. Thoroughbreds have been racing here since forever, part of the fabric like in no other city in North America.

Like New Orleans, Saratoga isn’t so much a destination as it is a feeling. No matter how familiar you are with the environs, no matter if know more than a hundred ways to avoid bustling Broadway on Travers night, the sense and sensibility of the place is timeless.

For me, Saratoga felt different this year. Maybe because I lost Terri, or maybe because 15 days is too short. So many people to visit with, so little time.

Oh, Caroline Street was impassable on Travers night, congested by revelers, like it is on almost any weekend, much less August. But the rest of the town was a little quiet, which never is the case in August.

With a few exceptions, there was little time to kill at the bar awaiting a table at the most popular restaurants, with or without reservations. We ate out most every night, albeit avoiding the newest hot spots that crop up around town every year.

Following the 12th race Travers day--still stunned by a front-running mile and a quarter in one-fifty-nine-and-three and in awe of the remarkable Lady Eli who returned from a debilitating disease a year later to finish second by 3/4s of a length, 1-1/16 miles in near record 1:38.77--we left the track via the Nelson Ave. gate with only two cars ahead of us.

Two cars!

There’s something wrong with this picture, I thought. I noted the time, 6:37 p.m. At that point, the race day was precisely seven hours and two minutes long.

Seven hours and two minutes!

I picked up Toni at 14 Central Avenue and we were at our favorite Italian Restaurant a little after 7 p.m. I had called an audible, arrived sans reservations, and I had my choice of tables. We were seated immediately.

After dinner, we sipped on anisette out back, hard by the bocce court, and the owner grabbed a quick bite at our table. “I noticed there were some tables available all night and this wasn’t the only time that’s happened this year. How’s business?”

“They’re an inch away from killing this whole thing,” the owner said.

“Is it the rents, the increased prices at the track for everything, the late post times?”

“All of it,” he said. “I’m lucky, I don’t need this but a lot of people I know are hurting. [The racing] isn’t even as special anymore. They run too many races.”

In the name of an enhanced “guest experience,” Saratoga has become too much of a good thing. In the name of job security and currying favor with state ownership, there are now price points for amenities that once were free.

In the modern simulcast age, with ever competing signals and post times that have become meaningless as every betting dollar is syphoned as if every day were closing day, a day at the races has become numbingly stale.

Last race post Travers day was 6:54 p.m. for a program that began at 11:35 a.m. On an 11-race card the day before, with a traditional 1 p.m. first post, the finale was off at 7:15 p.m. It’s no wonder a few thousand people leave the track each day before the best horses even run. How does that help the sport?

Saratoga is supposed to be about celebrating the sport, not just providing great betting fodder.

Many people believe that if it weren’t for horse racing, Saratoga Springs would still be a one-horse town in upstate New York. Indeed, Saratoga owes the racing community a debt.

But the racing community owes the city something, too: Respect; deference for its inhabitants, traditions, its fans and, yes, its merchants as well.

Racing programs that end at 7:15 sharply curtails social life and not for just the elite but for families and visitors to the region, people that might want to dine at 7, or a 9, but late posts don’t easily allow for second seatings or a night life.

Indeed, locals get greedy, too. Towns-people who rent their homes for sustained periods act as if they’re doing you a favor by offering their residences at slightly less than hotel rates, racing-season prices that rival Manhattan’s for a night’s lodging.

The Jicha’s and Pricci’s were reminded by the realtor of the bargain rate of $3,000 charged for a two-week stay--and that was after $200 to have it cleaned professionally following previous lodgers—two veterinarians who paid $5,000 for a 10-day stay.

We all understand that Saratoga is a premium event, not unlike an A-list concert or a pair of tickets to Yankee Stadium. But, in case some are unaware, there aren’t as many horse racing fans as there used to be. Abuse them and there will be no one left to build on.

Concession prices are off the charts. In today’s world, $12 for a special Hattie’s Fried Chicken sandwich is fair market value, but $7 for a lemonade is not. The price of reserve seats keeps rising, leaving section-after-section of empty seats most weekdays.

The magic of Saratoga is about making people fall in love with the place, the region and the game, not to make folks feel like taken-for-granted marks. If that mindset continues, someday they will open it and no one will come.

Written by John Pricci

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