A horse walked into a bar and the bartender asked, “Why the long face?”
“The longer racing season,” replied the neigh-sayer.
This year’s Saratoga Race Course season started eight days sooner than the norm for the past nine years. Eight days too soon, I think.
The cachet of Saratoga’s racing season is due in large part to the exclusivity of its limited engagement at the historic track. The Thursday, July 11 opening day felt like any weekday at the track.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy going to the track, and I’ve gone twice already (though not for the whole day, which is just too long); I won with my late dad’s favorite trainer, Linda Rice, on opening day and I saw hat contest participants and brought home my picnic cooler give-away on Sunday.
I’m grateful to be living in a lively, thriving city, which hinges to a great degree on the success of the New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga and the downstate Belmont and Aqueduct thoroughbred tracks. I appreciate new seating options at both end of the Saratoga grandstand to lure new and young visitors.
However, for me, living in walking distance from both the track and Broadway, the earlier start was one more weekend of tourists taking over my favorite restaurants and planning travel around anticipated traffic jams – especially when the track coincides with big concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, as was the case with the Dave Matthews Band on July 12 and 13.
Not the worst problems in the world, I admit. But since a slow day at Saratoga makes more money for NYRA than a good day at Belmont or Aqueduct, I worry about continued lengthening of the Saratoga season. Total betting from all sources for these first four days at Saratoga was $73.4 million, exceeding betting on the first four days last year by more than $1.7 million.
In a tongue-in-cheek column in July 2016, the Times Union’s Tim Wilkin wrote: “Saratoga used to be known as the August place to be as the meet was 24 days, all in August. Then the light bulb went on at NYRA. Extend the meet! It grew to 30 days in 1991, then 34 three years later. In 1997, it was up to 36 days. In 2010, it hit 40 days. … Maybe they should run from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.”
Now, without adding racing days, the season is a full week longer. Instead of closing only on Tuesdays, the track will also be closed every Monday, the least popular racing day, except for Labor Day.
Though the earlier opening for Saratoga was ostensibly because of construction of an arena for the NHL Islanders on the Belmont property, who wants to bet on the length of future Saratoga meets?
I want the track to do well and for related local businesses and the local economy to benefit. I get that any inconvenience to local yokels is nowhere on NYRA’s priority list. But I worry about the bigger picture – the risk of losing the exclusivity that makes the Saratoga racing meet special.