Saratoga’s first week is in the books. As with so much else that differentiates summer in Saratoga during the race meet from the rest of the world, a week is not seven days. The first week is only four days and the remaining six are six days. Here are the observations of one person:
- Quality of the racing cards is generally good: In recent years, there has been an abundance of 5 1/2 furlong turf races and low level claimers, many of which were at six furlongs. So far, we have been treated to a variety of races, including honest-to-goodness allowances. Only three claiming races of $20,000 were run, and only six turf races at 5 1/2. The fields were of good size except for the number of short fields on “giveaway Sunday,” where five of the races had fields of six or fewer. I hope that is not an indication that NYRA thinks they can get away with short fields if they are giving away what they describe as a “premier prized mementos.”
- But how much longer will these stakes retain their grade? The opening day feature has been the Grade II Schuylerville. This year’s running attracted a field of only five, forcing NYRA to make it the third race on the card to make for more attractive betting opportunities in the later multi-race exotic wagers. I read somewhere that the winning Beyer was only a 68. The CCA Oaks on Sunday was a Grade I event that attracted all of six entrants, none of whom had yet won a Grade I. The purse was $300,000, which makes the running of
TapitureUntapable in the Haskell a sensible decision given that a second-place finish there would be a larger purse than winning a race that had been a significant event for three-year old fillies.
- Is attendance up or down? It is going to be somewhat difficult to make meaningful comparisons between this year and previous ones since NYRA has decided sensibly to no longer include the “spinners” on giveaway days in the paid attendance. But the Friday, Saturday and Monday attendance was about where it was two years ago, with the average for the three days being 56 customers higher this year. Last year saw the meet open with such oppressive heat that the biggest discussion on Opening Day was whether to cancel.
- NYRA’s cosmetic changes are mostly positive: The new monitors are an improvement, and the added picnic tables in the backyard are less obtrusive than I expected. Enlarging the downstairs clubhouse restaurant removed some of the benches, but still left some in place. One negative on the picnic tables, however, is that by placing them so close to the paddock, the ability of fans to go to the paddock has been seriously restricted. On the weekend, some of those tables near the paddock were covered by tents, meaning access was even more limited.
- Who are the guys with NYRA badges who seem to have nothing to do? I spent a delightful Monday afternoon just walking around in the backyard area. I was struck by seeing several employees with the NYRA name tags who seemed to have nothing to do. I realize they may be yet more customer service representatives – in addition to those at the “May I help you” stations upon entering the track – but it was kind of puzzling. Perhaps if there was a bigger crowd they would have some work.
That Monday walking around made me realize how much we can take the Saratoga experience for granted. While going to any race track can be a venture from the real world to a different, totally contained one, Saratoga is more akin to a fantasy. It’s a beautiful facility located in the nice part of town, and features the best race meet in this country if not the world. And it is but a short walk to a vibrant downtown or a short drive to beautiful country, whether it be the farms five miles away or the start of the Adirondack mountains 30 miles from here.
Yet it is a fragile environment for racing in New York. The government-controlled NYRA is preparing a plan for the future structure of racing in New York. One news report said the draft would be ready next month, but there is no indication that NYRA will share it with either the public or the tens of thousands whose livelihood depends on the racing and breeding industries.
Then there are the signs that NYRA’s management just doesn’t get it. There is the limited access to the paddock. They stopped selling clubhouse passes after marketing them in what I thought was a great way to blunt the criticism for increasing prices this year. It is hard to believe that they are so strapped for cash that they would curtail one of the best fan-friendly initiatives they have – with the increased handle that would accompany those going more often because of the pass.
In a press release they issued after the first weekend, they actually hailed an event that show-cased an “all natural, cold-pressed, no concentrate, no sugar added juice” that you may only have seen in Thruway rest stops – I’m not making this up. This would be the same weekend in which they gave up on an ill-conceived idea to limit the availability of a beloved, free newspaper, The Saratoga Special, which has done more to promote interest in Saratoga’s racing than all of their over-the-top press releases.
We should not lose sight of the fact that this is Chris Kay’s second year at the Spa. After the fiasco the Belmont Stakes was for many fans – with no apology forthcoming – he continues to make rookie mistakes.