Horse racing is gradually resuming in the Northeast with Belmont starting on June 3 and Saratoga Race Course scheduled for its original opening day of July 16. The training tracks at both locations have been operating under safety protocols imposed by the New York Racing Association.
Spectators, including owners, were not permitted for either live racing or the morning workouts; indeed, only those working directly with the horses and personnel necessary for running the track and televising the races were allowed in the facility.
I think a more pressing question, however, should be whether the Saratoga meet takes place in Saratoga Springs or moved downstate to Belmont and/or Aqueduct. After watching the disgraceful scene – in Saratoga Springs – by the owners and friends of Tiz the Law watching the Belmont Stakes who were packed together with barely a mask in sight, I am staunchly opposed to making the risk in this community any higher.
Martin Panza, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Racing, argued (in The Thoroughbred Daily News podcast of May 21) that the “town needs us.” Local business interests understandably want to re-open the hotels, restaurants, bars and retail shops that have been shuttered. The race meet is not just an important part of their annual revenue, but an essential one.
By all accounts, NYRA has done an effective job of minimizing the virus risks on the Belmont Park backstretch while allowing training to continue. It is, of course, located near the New York City and Long Island “hot spots,” and has experienced multiple infections and, even worse, a death. But their extensive protocols appear to have the problem contained. Nonetheless, the backstretch experienced 85 positive (and recovered) cases from a population of 585. Keeneland reported 27 positives from a resident population of 200. (The numbers are from BloodHorse.com. I do not know what the dates are, which would inform on infection trends.)
That does not mean, however, that it would be smart to move a substantial piece of that operation up the Northway. In addition to hundreds of horses – and the humans needed to transport them – there are hundreds of workers necessary to care for them. The Saratoga area has been relatively quiet in terms of the virus over the past several weeks. Introducing a significant influx of people who, by necessity, work in close proximity to their colleagues – and may be coming from a virus hot spot – is inviting a spread.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that last year’s crowds are not coming back this year. And I will hazard a guess that for every track worker coming for the meet who goes to a bar or restaurant there will be a local resident who is going to stay away. It’s not that the track worker is inherently a risk, but that there is an increased risk, particularly in the confined indoor spaces where the virus thrives.
The last thing those businesses need, however, is a resurgence in the virus that results in either further restrictions or – even worse – a lack of public confidence that will have prospective customers staying away in droves for a prolonged period of time. And as much as I hate to say it, the safe practices that have been observed in New York may be starting to fade.
Governor Cuomo said a week ago that the state has received 25,000 complaints from residents about the multiple failures to maintain safe practices, including congested parks, restaurants and bars. The Onion “reported” that the Mayor of Dallas told residents “they would soon officially be entering Phase 4 of pretending the coronavirus was over.”
Lone Star Park just tweeted a welcome to fans attending the track’s reopening with a photograph of spectators standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the rail, even though Texas is one of the states experiencing a terrifying increase in infections. Delaware Park recently resumed racing and permitted spectators. Shortly after opening, however, it was forced to cut back to just 1,000 patrons for reasons not reported. But I think we can surmise that it was irresponsible behavior on the part of fans that compelled the reduction.
But NYRA’s concern for the town (and I do not doubt their sincerity) is perhaps secondary to their own business interests. Martin Panza said it was important for the races to actually be run at the Spa in an interview with Bill Finley quoted in Thoroughbred Daily News on April 26:
“Even if we cannot have fans at the track, the handle for a Saturday at Saratoga will be close to double what we would handle if the races were at Belmont and certainly a lot more than what we would handle at Aqueduct. Being up there will allow us to handle a lot more money on our races and that means much larger purses.”
Now I am far from an expert on racetrack economics, but what Panza says about the handle does not make a lot of sense. If he is saying that a typical Saratoga handle exceeds a typical Belmont handle and far exceeds a typical Aqueduct handle, I cannot imagine anyone would disagree. But I think the recent experience with wagering in the United States strongly suggests that his concern is overblown. And it is the Spa’s racing product – top horses,lots of turf and two-year-olds – that is the attraction.
Oaklawn Park’s Arkansas Derby is a must for racing fans every spring, but not to the level this year’s split divisions revealed. Oaklawn attracted a seismic 252 per cent increase in handle for the full card over last year’s version. Churchill Downs’ card on May 23 had five interesting stakes – a Grade III being the only graded one – and saw a 208 per cent increase over the same day last year according to TDN.
The TDN has been publishing handle figures from major tracks compared to comparable days a year ago. These are recent changes for Belmont Park with increases this year compared to last year:
- Friday, June 5 + 55%
- Saturday, June 6 + 81%
- Sunday, June 7 + 85%
- Thursday, June 11 + 85%
- Friday, June 12 + 21%
- Saturday, June 13 + 12%
- Sunday, June 14 + 59%
- Thursday, June 18 + 86%
- Friday, June 19 + 130%
The only decrease in handle from a comparable day in 2019 was – of all things – the Belmont Stakes which handled 34% less than it did for the same race card lasy year. But as Martin Panza would be the first to tell you, field size is one of the most definitive factors in handle size. So, here are the field sizes for the five graded stakes preceding this year’s Belmont Stakes: 5, 6, 5, 7, 8. Sunday’s card bounced back with a 62% increase over last year’s Sunday of Belmont weekend..
Most wagering, even when there are spectators, does not take place at a mutual window in an historic grandstand. I looked at the handles on eight days in the middle of last year’s meet. On every day I looked at – whether it was a Wednesday or a Saturday – the amount wagered through off-track sites was between three and four times that bet on track. So Panza’s argument that NYRA will lose the on-track handle is true, but the impact is blunted by the above data.
The Saratoga meet is obviously an important event for both the racing scene and the Saratoga community. Having some of the best racing in the world moved temporarily to either Belmont or Aqueduct should not have a significant effect on NYRA’s handle. But it could have a devastating impact on Saratoga Springs that could take years for a recovery. It should not be a difficult call.
As a Saratoga resident, I have witnessed a disturbing lack of compliance with health mandates. Perhaps if the city or state park replaced its flashing sign of “Please use a face covering” with “Wear a Mask, Tiz the Law,” maybe the Sackatoga people could comply instead of being the poster child for a Covid-19 hotspot on national TV.