SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Of all the tracks rendered silent in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, Saratoga was where it was felt the most. Picnic tables, typically packed with people, were instead stacked a dozen or so high outside the grounds. The path from the winner’s circle to the jockeys’ room, usually lined with fans or youngsters seeking autographs, was barren. The sight of local favorite Tiz the Law drawing away to win the Travers Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths was not accompanied by what surely would have a raucous celebration.
“It was a little sad not having the fans there,” Dave O’Rourke, the New York Racing Association’s CEO and president, said last week. “It was awfully quiet during some of these major races. Thankfully, we were able to have the owners there so there was a semblance of normality but it’s not something anyone wants to repeat.
“The one thing that I could say about last year, going through what we went through, trying to have an entertainment sport without live ontrack attendance, it makes you more thankful for what we’re about to enjoy.”
What the NYRA – and likely the town itself – is about to enjoy when Saratoga’s 40-day meet opens Thursday is perhaps its most successful Saratoga yet. With NYRA able to open Saratoga to full capacity – and with a deeper horse population owing in part to the closure of the Churchill Downs barn area for track renovations – the ingredients seem in place for a record-setting season. The meet runs through Sept. 6.
“I anticipate we’ll have a blockbuster year,” O’Rourke said.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, said at downtown hotels, “advanced bookings are incredibly good for the next six or seven weeks,” especially on weekends.
“The reality is hotel rates are up even above 2019 rates and it doesn’t seem like that’s making any difference in terms of demand,” Shimkus said. “What that means for us is where people stay is where they spend their money. They’re staying at local hotels, they’re dining at local restaurants, and they’re shopping at local stores.”
As the meet begins, there is little talk of COVID aside from the fact that those who show proof of having been vaccinated will receive free grandstand admission for Thursday’s opening-day card. Unvaccinated attendees are encouraged to wear masks. Friday, NYRA will honor health-care workers and first responders, offering free grandstand admission to members of those fields with proper identification.
“You can live with the fear of what if it comes back, a third wave, but you can’t let that stop you from trying to have some fun while you can,” O’Rourke sad.
The Saratoga brand is such that in 2020, despite no on-track audience, all-sources handle was $702.5 million, just $2.8 million shy of the all-time record. The 2019 record of $705,343,949 is likely to fall this year.
“I’d bet the over,” O’Rourke said.
This will be the third year that racing will be conducted five days a week – Wednesdays through Sundays – with Mondays and Tuesdays dark save Labor Day. First post daily will be 1:05 p.m., with the exception of Travers Day (11:35 a.m.) and closing weekend (12:30 p.m.)
NYRA is offering fans a few new hospitality areas. The Spa Verandas replace the former picnic area at the top of the stretch. There are six partially covered sections – each able to accommodate as many as 45 guests – that feature lounge furniture, televisions, betting machines, and private access to the track.
There is a tailgating area in the vicinity of the first turn, just past the 1863 Club. There are 16 designated picnic areas that can accommodate as many as six fans each. Fans may bring in their own food and beverage.
Many of racing’s top horses are expected to participate at the meet, including leading 3-year-old Essential Quality, on schedule for the Jim Dandy (July 31) and then hopefully the Travers (Aug. 28). The Grade 1 Whitney on Aug. 7 is expected to attract recent graded winners Maxfield, Silver State, and Knicks Go. Letruska, the top older female in training, is pointing to the Personal Ensign (Aug. 28). The undefeated Kentucky Oaks winner Malathaat is slated to run in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks (July 24) and Alabama (Aug. 21). Swiss Skydiver, the champion 3-year-old of 2020, is pointing to the Shuvee (July 25) and Personal Ensign.
Among the few equine stars not slated to race at Saratoga is Domestic Spending, the leading male turf horse in the nation who is targeting the Grade 1 Mister D. Stakes (formerly Arlington Million) on Aug. 14 in Chicago.
New stars figure to emerge with the bevy of 2-year-old maiden races expected to be offered at the meet.
Racing’s most recognizable human face, trainer Bob Baffert, is currently banned from participating at NYRA tracks. On May 17, NYRA banned the Hall of Fame trainer for a rash of medication violations capped by Medina Spirit testing positive for betamethasone following his victory in the Kentucky Derby. That ban is being challenged in court.
“I would say it could be a little bit of a distraction on the management side because we have to focus on the situation, but in terms of the meet I don’t think it’s going to act as a cloud in that sense,” O’Rourke said.
NYRA will be offering the largest purses in Saratoga history. Open maiden races are $100,000 with allowance purses ranging from $103,000 to $115,000, depending on condition. Stakes previously worth $100,000 will now be worth $120,000.
A $12,500 claiming race – the bottom-level race offered at Saratoga – will have a purse of $36,000.
The stakes schedule is robust with 76 stakes worth $21.5 million offered throughout the 40-day meet. The Jockey Club Gold Cup and Flower Bowl – Grade 1 staples at the Belmont fall meet – have been moved to Saratoga and will be run Sept. 4. There are now 18 Grade 1 flat stakes offered at the meet.
Brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz Jr., who have split the last six Saratoga riding titles, figure to vie for the 2021 crown. Joel Rosario and Luis Saez would perhaps have an outside chance to unseat the Ortizes.
Todd Pletcher pulled a bit of a surprise last year when he won his 14th Saratoga trainer’s title. Chad Brown will be favored to capture his fourth crown.
Brad Cox, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer, will have his largest contingent of horses in Saratoga, including Essential Quality.
At some point this summer, Steve Asmussen, who will have 30 head in Saratoga, figures to pass Dale Baird as Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leader in wins.
It figures to be a record-setting meet on several fronts.