Contributed by Michael Pawluk
It’s April 27th, a grey, overcast day here in Saratoga. We’ve been locked down for what seems like several lifetimes, as COVID-19 has changed our ways of living, possibly forever. Normally the buzz and conversations all over town would begin with seven words, “Who do you like in the Derby?”
Saratoga Springs, New York, is no longer a place which the “city folks” visit for a brief period in the Summer. It’s a vibrant, bustling city with businesses, a college, year-round tourism and many residents who call it home. The essence of Saratoga has changed to many but the driving economic force and passion of the majority of people in the area still is horses and equine sports. Most notably, horse racing. The live Thoroughbred horse racing meet has expanded to almost eight weeks. The Oklahoma training track on the Saratoga Race Course is the home to leading trainers in the country for six-to-seven months a year. Even in the dead of winter, the simulcasting venue at Saratoga Harness always is packed with people watching and wagering on races from all over the country.
All we Saratogians know the drill. The first Saturday in May is the Kentucky Derby. Then, the first seasonal folks begin to arrive, and begin to settle into their annual encampment. Whether it’s Lucy rocking back-and-forth while playing two slot machines at the same time at the Racino; Carlos at the YMCA swimming pool, or the famous license plate of Bill Parcells' SUV, seen moving around town—it all means that summer isn’t far away.
Spring in Saratoga is an exciting time: the air is electric with anticipation. By June, you’ll start to hear the ever-annoying, “Are you ready for the meet?!!” every 10 minutes. I always wonder what will happen if I say no, I'm not ready. Will NYRA delay Opening Day at Saratoga Race Course simply because I'm not ready? Doubtful. By July 4th weekend, Saratoga is packed with folks from all over, enjoying fireworks and eagerly counting the days 'til that Opening Day.
But this year will be different. One of the hardest parts of this international lockdown caused by a pandemic is that…we've never done this before. No one knows what to expect in any part of any life—we don't know what tomorrow will bring, much less, three months from tomorrow. When will the social restrictions be lifted? How will people respond to the lift? Will they crush in in droves, and possibly cause a second wave of the pandemic?
The lack of social contact has been the hardest part for many of us—not just in Saratoga, but everywhere on our planet.
Apart from horse racing, the part I find the hardest in particular is the anxiety: wondering, if life ever will be the same again. Day-after-day floats by; the days all begin to blend into one. I miss the simple things, and wonder if we EVER will get some of them back again. Will the restaurants and bars ever open again? Will they be crowded like they were before? How long will it be before you can walk into a movie theater or casino again? Will sports ever resume? Will there be crowds roaring when a touchdown pass is thrown, or a runner rounds third base to tie the game?
Of course around these parts The Big Question is this: will there be a live racing meet at Saratoga in the year 2020?
The answer should be obvious to NYRA, the Governor and local officials. Sadly, that answer should be a resounding NO!
There is only one responsible way for NYRA and officials to act for the long-term benefit of the horseman, the fans and the people of this area - for humanity and for world health. The 2020 meet must be cancelled and held at Belmont if possible. There are larger issues involved here than purse money or tradition: businesses are going to fail all over America due to this crisis. Horse racing isn’t special enough to be included under the umbrella of industries that are critical in these difficult times.
As far as tradition goes, if Wimbledon can be cancelled and the Masters rescheduled, then horse racing can also be asked and forced to break its grandest tradition.
The statistics show that upstate New York has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. As a year-round resident, I can attest that almost from the beginning of this pandemic that people here have listened to the Governor’s suggestions, which then became mandates regarding social distancing, masks and gloves. If the entire state and COUNTRY acted with the discipline, respect for others and patriotism that upstate has demonstrated during this crisis, then we would all be in a better place.
Does it sound like a good idea to anyone for NYRA and horse trainers to send at least 3000 workers to Saratoga Springs for a meet with no fans? It would be dangerous and reckless to subject local residents to the possible and LIKELY effects of such a move.
A meet with no fans still means that trainers, assistant trainers, foremen, grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, jockeys, NYRA employees and their families would come into town from all over the country as well as primarily from the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the WORLD, the New York City-metro and Long Island areas. I cannot begin to describe what a reckless move this would be.
Saratoga is a small place and the majority of people shop at the same supermarket (Price Chopper Route 50), CVS (Congress Street), Stewart’s (Circular and Broadway), Purdy’s liquor store (Congress Street) and the famous Five Points. If you’re from here or someone who comes for racing season, chances are you just nodded your head and realized those places are where “everyone” goes.
Bringing in at least 3000 visitors who all will patronize those establishments is bad enough: now let’s talk about another inevitable consequence of having a meet with no fans: the fact that many will show up anyway! Just this last weekend in conversation, I mentioned there’s meet with no fans, certainly fans would come anyway! They would line Nelson Avenue on the sidewalk by the fence with a clear view of the racetrack to watch the races, bet by phone and party in close proximity to each other near the The HorseShoe Inn, The Mexican Connection and Siro's.
Horse racing insiders know that horseplayers are probably the most devoted group of people on this planet. There are many people from all over the country, and even the world, with “consecutive year” streaks, returning to Saratoga for the races and yearly reunions. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that legions of people won’t return to town. This is just unrealistic. To cement my theory about thousands of zealots lining Nelson Avenue, I saw a tweet from someone who already posted a picture of the spot on Nelson Avenue that he had staked out where he intends to watch the races. When you add those people to the at-least 3000 or so “essential” people required to run racing even without fans—you'll have a recipe for disaster in this area, a place where residents have worked so hard to fight the pandemic.
Is that really what NYRA or the horsemen want to do to an area that embraces them year after year with their hearts and wallets? This is a very, very, very bad idea. The likely consequences of such a reckless plan will be to cause a huge spike in COVID-19 cases in this area right in time for fall, when a second wave is expected to hit. Additionally, those 3000 people and thousands of fans can take the virus back to other parts of the country—and the world. In the big picture, this is not only about Saratoga but the destinations which are impacted after Labor Day.
A meet without fans wouldn’t have enough economic impact on the area to offset the likely damage left behind as hotels, restaurant and other small businesses are already struggling. NYRA needs to act responsibly, and local and state officials need to protect this area from such a plan. It makes far-more sense to run at Belmont Park without fans for the entire summer after Governor Cuomo approves the resumption of racing in New York.
The economic impact to the area will be steep. The loss of a Saratoga race meet would also be a blow to horsemen. There are ways to cope with this: I have several ideas, things that might be done to lessen the negative impact. Oaklawn Park is about to conclude an amazingly successful meet with no fans on Saturday with estimates of a possible $30-40 million in handle on Arkansas Derby Day. Having done $19 million and $16 million in handle the last two Saturdays, they’ve shown that it is possible to conduct racing without fans and do a large handle. If Oaklawn can do it without a grass course, certainly NYRA could achieve similar results at Belmont this summer.
With all sports still on hiatus due to the pandemic, wouldn’t it make sense to ask NBC if they’d do a live racing show from Belmont on Saturdays and Sundays? Something has to fill that void and racing would certainly be candidate. NYRA could advertise NYRABETS all day long and most likely get tens of thousands of new accounts. How about asking Tom Durkin to come out of retirement temporarily to call the races each Saturday? It would give them a feel-good, Breeders’ Cup aura sure to appeal to many. Like every other business and industry, NYRA is going to have to “call audibles” (changing the play at the last minute, a term taken from the NFL) and try new ideas to survive.
Its long been my view and the view of many others that NYRA’s Achilles heel has long been its resistance to change and new ideas. Here’s one idea to consider (although I won’t hold my breath). How about DOUBLE the Saratoga meet in 2021 to help make up for the economic beating the Saratoga area would take with no meet this year and to help inject life into the game next year? A June-September meet makes all the sense in the world in 2021 for so many reasons.
First of all, it’s very likely that by 2021, more rural areas will be far-less impacted than cities will be by COVID-19. Cities such as New York are expected to be the LAST places the virus leaves. Would horsemen shipping in next year from Florida and Kentucky feel safer shipping into Saratoga than Belmont? Very likely. The notion that Saratoga residents wouldn’t adapt and even embrace a longer meet is a false narrative pushed by those who simply don't want to stay here past Labor Day. The same arguments against extending the meet now can be found with a simple google search being used 25 years ago, regarding why the Saratoga meet could not be extended to Labor Day weekend.
As funny as that sounds now, it wasn’t that long ago when the same change- resistant people said Labor Day weekend racing here wasn’t practical. How’d that work out? Many of the September Belmont Breeders’ Cup prep stakes have had their graded status lowered, or are in danger of having their graded status lowered in the very near future. Moving those stakes to Saratoga would certainly cause better and larger fields because quite simply, everyone wants to run their horses here rather than anyplace else, regardless of the month.
As far as pushing back the start date of next year, imagine the fireworks show in town after a day at the races, celebrating what we hope will be the survival of America and its spirit following the biggest challenge of our lifetimes. I don’t care what the logistical arguments are, in my opinion, there is no way that a 16 week meet here in 2021 would be anything other than a smash hit worthy of having details worked out. It would also give local business owners in trouble and struggling a reason to hang on until next summer in the hopes of a shot in the arm that will be badly needed.
We’ve already lost a lot during this crisis. We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost jobs, and we’ve lost businesses that may never come back. Thankfully, racing has managed to continue, and horsemen are persevering. Admitting that a Saratoga 2020 with or without fans is a very bad idea isn’t easy to accept, but it’s a sad reality, one of many we will have to accept in upcoming weeks and months. NYRA and government officials need to do the right thing and move on from a bad idea while planning for a brighter future.
by Marion Altieri
No one loves horse racing in Saratoga more than I. Very few people have hung at that rail longer than I: if racing happened in 2020, it would be 60 years since my first race in Saratoga. I was four, and rode Quarter horses for the first time in 1960. That summer, my Mother took me to Saratoga—and I've been a railbird there ever since.
No one loves the place or knows the squeak of every wooden floorboard—more intimately than I. It's also unlikely that many people reading this are living with COVID-19, as am I as I sit here at my laptop. I would not wish this fear—this constant nausea, constant monitoring of blood oxygen, heartbeat and temperature—on my worst enemy. This disease ravages bodies, and entire societies.
Ergo, it is not lightly that I say: absolutely not. In no way, shape or form should the New York Racing Association bring any horses, any humans to Saratoga this year. No racing, no way, no how. It IS true, that if the horses are running—idiots and drunks will storm Saratoga like Sherman took Atlanta, with no regard whatsoever for their own health—never mind, for the health of Saratoga County residents who've spent many months obeying the laws and working hard to stay alive.
I love Saratoga with every fiber of my being: to know me is to know that truth. I will certainly miss holding horses' heads in my arms, and kissing their faces as they pop out of their stalls in the storied Saratoga shedrows.
But here's The Bottom Line, and The Truth, NYRA: if you open Saratoga this year—there may be no one left alive to run the show and the horses next year. This pandemic is real, NYRA and New York State, as our Govenor well-knows. This ain't your garden-variety summer flu: this is an enemy that's put every scientist, researcher and medical professional on Earth on the front lines, working feverishly to find the cure. Who knows? They may find that cure by July, 2021, and it will be safe to rent hotel rooms in The Spa City once again.
But until then—and it rips my heart out of my chest to write this—until next summer, when the world is at least hopefully-distanced from this horrible shared experience—I wouldn't go within 1000 feet of Union or Nelson Avenues. Because I'm a cagey Broad, don't ya know: I'd rather give up this summer in Saratoga in order to be there safely and healthily next year—and many years into the future.
To open my beloved Saratoga Race Course this year would be frivolous, at best, and homicidal at worst. NYRA, New York State: you absolutely cannot take the chance of catering to a few idiots, and thereby risk sacrificing thousands of horse race professionals and fans—not just in Saratoga, but who will go back to their homes all over this world. Give up on a 2020 meet: instead, join me in stepping back to breathe, THENCE to act. We can give up this summer—a summer, that's all—to plan for 2021 and thereby, to guarantee a safe, healthy racing environment and Saratoga region for many generations to come. It's really a matter of love: love the horses, love the sport, love every single person whose life is touched by the magnificent equine athletes and their Sport of Kings (and Queens).
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