Season Over, But Not For Long

2017 Saratoga season ends; 2018 season just 62 days away

by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228

SARATOGA SPRINGS—The 2017 racing season came to an end at Saratoga Casino Hotel with 12-races on a cold, but sunny afternoon.  The crowd was small and unusually quiet for the all-trot card.  This season, I was able to visit Yonkers, the Meadowlands, Saratoga and Monticello.  All have unique characteristics that set them apart from one another.   Monticello is rustic and for true diehards.  Yonkers is big and offers the best purses and best horses.  The Meadowlands is world-class with restaurants, bars, great seating and exceptional sightlines.

Saratoga is an underrated facility.  Unlike Yonkers, the view from the closed-in clubhouse is very good.  You can see the entire track and the sight lines are excellent.  The facility is clean and you can watch races from the clubhouse, downstairs (which is also enclosed) and of course, outside.  You can also enjoy the Sunday buffet in Fortunes Restaurant which offers a terrific view of the track.

The track is fast and the times are swift.  It is a half-mile and like all of them, the turns can be tight and unforgiving.  On Sunday, we saw Got It Good win race 4 from the dreaded eight post.  In the feature race, a $19,500 open trot, Ulster took command right before the ¾ mark and won in 1:55.4, the fastest time of the day.

Saratoga typically runs four days week—Thursday thru Sunday.  The Thursday and Sunday cards are matinees and generate decent handles.  Yesterday, the handle was $317,113; last Thursday, it was $257,565.  Friday’s handle was $257,360 and Saturday—with the Meadowlands in action, it was $191,241.

This tells me a couple of things.  One, it’s tough to take on the Meadowlands on a Saturday night and two, matinee harness racing works.  The people I talk to at Saratoga enjoy daylight racing and on Sundays, many tracks beg off not wanting to compete against the NFL juggernaut. Maybe that’s the wrong approach.

Saratoga also has the thoroughbred track to compete with on seven (soon to be 9?) weekends per year each summer and they do change things up when the flat track is in session, taking advantage by running on Tuesdays when the flat track is dark and of course, avoiding Sundays.

There were thousands of harness races this year, but none was better than the Gerrity Memorial, which was contested on Saturday, July 22. It was a rare treat; all horses went for it right from the start and when the smoke cleared, Bit of Legend N outlasted the field to win in a blazing 1:50.3.  There are many who dismiss racing on half-mile ovals, but this was the showcase for how to do it.  They were racing two-wide from the get-go and all eight drivers put their pacers in a position to win the race.  That’s all one can ask for in a horse race.  The fact that the race featured a $260,000 purse made it all the more special.

If you like harness racing, in New York, you’re lucky.  Saratoga is one of seven harness tracks in the Empire State and unlike other states; New York makes sure that harness racing is a 12-month gig.  Monticello and Yonkers do the heavy lifting, with 207 and 235 days of racing respectively.  Saratoga checks in with roughly 160.  Buffalo and Batavia essentially split the calendar—Buffalo runs 90 days from January to July and Batavia picks up with 71 dates from July to December.  Vernon and Tioga are a bit more seasonal with fewer days over fewer months.

I am drawn to Yonkers because of the purses and have a keen eye on Monticello because of its afternoon schedule, but I must admit, I take Saratoga a bit for granted.  I live 37 miles from the track and like a person who lives near Niagara Falls; it is easy to dismiss something that is so close to you.  I promise that, in 2018, I will pay more attention to what I (and probably nobody else) call “The Little Spa.”

The Capital Region is a horse racing town, but most in the area only think of the Saratoga Race Course, (The Summer Place to Be) completely ignoring the track that is literally across the street; that being “Saratoga Raceway.”  On Gerrity day, none of the local media outlets previewed the race, none of them covered the race and on Sunday, none of them reviewed the race—a race for the ages.  The biggest paper in town doesn’t even publish the entries and the results.  Even the Buffalo News, with two professional sports teams, (Bills and Sabres), still has the space to publish entries and results from both Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs.

Saratoga is on a break, but only until Sunday, February 18 when the curtain will rise on season number 77.  In July, my friends will ask me if I’m excited for opening day at Saratoga, and I will tell them with glee, “The track’s been open since February.”

















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