Early this week, colleague Bill Finley of Thoroughbred Daily News wrote an interesting article about the 2020 Saratoga race meet–when and if permission finally is granted to conduct live Thoroughbred racing at any New York Racing Association track.
The piece was written before HorseRaceInsider reported Monday night that the NYRA had sent a letter to the New York State Gaming Commission requesting that the 2020 Belmont spring/summer meet begin on Friday, May 22, the start of the Memorial Day weekend.
At this posting, the HRI story has neither been confirmed nor denied. A horseman requesting anonymity told HRI Monday that the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association sent, or was about to send, a letter stating they were in league with NYRA on the request.
That date comes exactly one week after New York’s extended shelter-in-place mandate is scheduled to end, May 15.
Not long after the Finley column, I heard from three Saratoga inhabitants, two Standardbred owners who cross-over to the runners, and a Thoroughbred owner/breeder. And it did not take long for them to share their concerns, questions, and observations.
Their comments are reprinted below, using first names and last initial only:
Charles F: “I think there is a valid question whether to move the meet from Belmont to Saratoga if there are no spectators. But I am even more interested in knowing why the meet would begin in Belmont rather than Saratoga given the incidence of COVID in the NYC Metro regions and specifically at Belmont?
“If I were an owner of an expensive stable of thoroughbreds who are idling in Kentucky or Florida waiting for NY to reopen, I would feel much more comfortable shipping my horses to Saratoga than Belmont.
“And if I were a trainer in Florida waiting for NY to reopen for racing, I would feel more comfortable moving myself and my family for an early start at Saratoga rather than move to the epicenter of the COVID outbreak in downstate NY.
“On another COVID related matter, in all probability the casino at Aqueduct will be closed far longer than the racetracks since races can be run with no spectators far more profitably than a group of slot machines with no players. So what does this mean for NYRA purses?
“How many stakes races will need to be cancelled or have the purses reduced significantly? I will be interested in seeing what the economic impact will be on NYRA revenues due to the loss of casino revenues and reduced handle, admissions, and concessions revenues if there are no spectators. Ugly picture indeed…”
Thomas M: “I read Bill Finley’s column for TDN [and there are] a million questions, a million scenarios–and probably a million per day in lost revenue to Saratoga Springs.
“Being subjectively hopeful for a normal ‘meet’ this summer, today I can sympathize with what NYRA’s possible decision-making process might be. But in two months, the situation could change dramatically.
“In my mind, NYRA has a month or six weeks to make the real decision vis a vis a meet at Saratoga. It is iconic, it will produce huge handle, fans, or no fans, and it affords a mental hiatus for everyone attached to the game we love so much.
“While racing ‘the Saratoga meet at Belmont’ reduces some exposure and expense to NYRA and their downstate employees, what does it do to the ancillary interests of everything and everybody attached to possibly the most revered horse racing meet in the country?
“If NYRA forgoes a summer meet in Saratoga, in my opinion it will impart almost irreparable damage to racing in New York and maybe the country. Fans, owners, trainers, breeders will start to slowly slip away and find new outlets for their attention and their money.
“And keep in mind, our governor is no big fan of our sport. So, maybe it’s time for NYRA to bite the proverbial bullet and forge ahead with deciding to have the Saratoga meet before a possible/probable pushback by state officials.”
Joseph S: “I read both of the above well thought out opinions on the Saratoga meet and I have nothing to add. I do have a recommendation that Charles’ internet alias be changed to “Upchuck,” which conveys my feelings for the possibility of cancellation of ‘The August Place to Be’.
While this topic is a galactic feast for racing fans and horseplayers to chew on, COVID-19 is the charging elephant in the room and will be for some time. Hopefully, the situation improves in New York sufficiently by May 15 and beyond—albeit not very realistic, even in a perfect world.
With or without spectators, trainers and stable-hands would ship in from all parts of the country and perhaps overseas for the cache that the Saratoga racing affords.
How many of them will clear quarantine restrictions as required by their regions, states, or countries? Do their environs recognize horse racing as an essential industry? How many of them will be tested, and is the per capita at that moment considered “acceptable?”
Whatever that number is, I am betting under the total. Current polling says that two of every three Americans are reluctant to take unnecessary risks with their health; Harvard says that masks will remain in vogue until 2022; most epidemiologists and virologists say the second wave will be worse.
So the question becomes whether Saratoga visitors would be willing to risk more than money for a day at the races and nights of partying this year? And if enough of them were willing to roll dice, would Saratogians welcome them with enthusiasm or reluctance?
Are residents willing to leave the safety of home, even if rental revenues do pay a year’s worth of taxes? But how much would local property taxes rise if betting and tourist dollars disappear? Numerous considerations remain.
Based solely on local economic repercussions, then, what would be the point of running Saratoga races without spectators, locals, or visitors? With fewer stakeholders present, would Saratoga remain the unique brand it represents?
Logistical issues are immense. With fierce competition for prize money and prestige, preparation is more painstaking than usual. Much of that provision takes place at Oklahoma, the training track on the other side of Union Avenue. In another year, that closed barn area would be full by now .
Charles made a good point. Since Saratoga is to NYRA what the Kentucky Derby weekend is to Churchill Downs Inc., wouldn’t it make more sense for horsemen trapped elsewhere to ship directly to Saratoga without a stopover in the virus-stricken metropolitan area?
Thomas had a point, too. NYRA is under the gun to bite the bullet soon and decide what if wants to commit to Saratoga’s scheduled opening of July 16 and announce that intention so as to put its landlord, New York State, on notice.
If a May 22nd Belmont opening becomes reality, that would allow almost two months to make the transition from State Elsewhere to Elmont to Saratoga. Horsemen would know where they need to be, when, and make plans. Locals can decide whether or not they wish to rent or stay safe at home.
For the wider upstate region, New York’s Capital District, and the town of Saratoga, spectator-less racing would be a disaster. As a horseplayer in a spectator-free world, I prefer the speed and excitement of Saratoga racing to the one-turn monotony that Belmont Park can become after a while.
Day trips of my youth notwithstanding, I have witnessed segments and entire race meets in Saratoga every year but one since 1970. I lived in a condo across the street from the track in a 134-year-old Victorian home on Union Avenue for 14 years.
Without people populating the stands, Saratoga would not be Saratoga. And, to the best of my knowledge, Siro’s does not offer curbside pickup or delivery.