The numbers of people passing through the turnstiles at Saratoga Race Course is declining dramatically from last year’s actual attendance figures. In just the last four days, attendance is down 39 per cent from the comparable days last year.
Because seemingly nothing with the New York Racing Association is as they say it is, it takes some explanation for how they count attendance. Last year, after the meet started and actual attendance was showing some disturbing figures, NYRA decided to add to the real figures the number of season passes that were not used that day. Approximately 6,400 season passes were sold last year. Comparing the actual turnstile count with the attendance reported by NYRA reveals that only one of every six pass holders attended the races on an average day. Over the last 34 days of the meet for which NYRA had this imaginative accounting, the attendance reported by NYRA exceeded the actual attendance by 179,345.
This year, NYRA sold even more season passes; the last number I saw was about 8,400. They also changed the way advanced reserve seating is handled. In years gone by, a reserved seat ticket was not used as admission to the track. One had to pay separately. This year, the ticket gets you in without a separate charge, although that admission charge is figured into the price of the ticket. I suspect that now the number of advanced reserved seating tickets that are not used on a given day is now also added to the actual attendance. NYRA did not respond to my inquiry on whether this was indeed their practice.
So, in an effort to figure out how many people are actually going to the track on a given day, one must discount the attendance reported by NYRA by both the number of unused season passes and the number of unused reserved seat tickets. Assuming the same level of usage by 2015 pass holders as by 2014 pass holders – five of every six do not attend on average – the reported attendance should be reduced by 7,000 each day. If we then assume that 1,000 reserved seat tickets are not used each day, we would then reduce the NYRA reported attendance by a total of 8,000 to get to an approximation of the turnstile count.
That’s where it becomes disturbing if one is concerned about the appeal of racing in general, and the country’s marquee meet in particular. Since day 17 of the meet, estimated actual attendance is below the comparable day for last year on almost every single day. Recently, it has been in a free-fall. I omitted comparisons on Travers day, give-away days and one day this year for which I do not have a number.
For the remaining 15 days, the 2015 attendance was greater than 2014 on only two occasions. Starting around day 20, the drop-off was generally in the range of 3,000. But on days 26 and 28, however, the decline was about 8,000 each day.
In the four days since the Travers, the decline has been stark. In 2014, a total of 56,583 passed through the turnstiles. My estimate for this year, however, is that only 34,701 did – a decline of 39 per cent.
Numbers such as these should cause a sentient Board of Directors to start asking questions. This is a year when the weather has not been a factor. Is it the constant price increases and monetizing of anything that walks? (How ironic is it, by the way, that New York’s Gaming Commission fined American Pharoah’s jockey $15,000 for wearing the name of an advertiser – and his own name – on the clothing he wore in the Travers?) Is it the persistent disregard of the long-time fan in order to benefit those with money to burn? Is it the constant disregard of the Saratoga community – whether it be the canceling of the Open House or the moving of give-away days to a Monday and a Wednesday?
NYRA CEO Chris Kay has actually said that the measure of Saratoga’s success is not in attendance figures, but in hotel occupancy taxes. It is difficult to see how that level of obliviousness is going to provide an answer to the serious questions facing NYRA. We can be sure, however, that the end-of-meet press releases from NYRA will be filled with their usual level of self-congratulatory nonsense.
The 2014 attendance figures are from NYRA. The 2015 reported attendance figures on which I based my calculations are from The Saratogian’s Pink Sheet.