by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
Special thoroughbred edition
Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he thinks Saratoga can race this summer without fans. While not a surprise, his words hurt those that enjoy summer, enjoy horse racing and enjoy Saratoga Springs. Each summer, the track draws 1 million in attendance and as we know, there is the trickle-down effect with hotels, restaurants, bars, convenience stores etc. all benefiting from the 40 days of racing.
That said, 2020 will go down as The Lost Summer. At some point things will begin to open up, but this summer, concerts, festivals, fairs, sporting events, and patrons at Saratoga, likely will not. The hope is that this summer will be a small—and required—price to pay so the next 30 summers will be open and back to normal.
The wheels were turning in the NYRA offices last week for they had a decision to make. With no fans, do they still conduct the 40-day meet at Saratoga, or do they run the meet in New York?
The Saratoga meet is bet heavily from around the country and the world. It draws the best owners, trainers and jockeys; and its daily purses are enormous with $85,000 allowance races appealing to many. And, that was likely the deciding reason when NYRA announced Monday that they’re coming to Saratoga this summer.
Would having a fan-less meet still attract enough bettors to justify the move? My guess is yes. The bettor in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri et al, who bets the track each summer but never visits will still want to bet. The stakes races are appealing—the Jim Dandy, the Diana, the Alabama, the Woodward, the Fourstardave—they are fixtures on the calendar and bettors gear up for them and bet them—and the meet–with both fists.
A fan-less Saratoga does present obstacles. NYRA is headquartered in Queens, minutes from Aqueduct and a few more minutes from Belmont Park. If you’re not going to have fans at Saratoga, why not cut the logistics and the associated costs and stage the Saratoga meet in New York? I’m sure this was debated on more than occasion.
That’s just one issue. Before Covid-19 hit, there was major construction going on at the Belmont grounds; mainly the building of a new arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders. If the Saratoga meet is run downstate, it will certainly be run at Aqueduct. Nothing against the Big A, but we all know in a NYRA track beauty contest, she comes in third.
An Aqueduct Travers and an Aqueduct Whitney would surely draw big pools, but they wouldn’t be as big as they are when they’re run at Saratoga and that definitely played into NYRA’s decision to go ahead with a meet at the nations’ oldest thoroughbred track; a track that first ran while the Civil War was going in back in 1864.
There is a thing called star power and Saratoga has it as well as the distinction of being the summer place to be. Americans are calendar based. For horse racing fans, summer means Saratoga, winter means Aqueduct; it’s tough to reprogram. We see that every time a spring football league tries to give it a go. As much as Americans love football, the calendar says football is a fall sport, not a spring one.
Every summer, NYRA has to move its operations from Queens to Saratoga Springs. Trainers, owners, jockeys, hot walkers, etc. all have to find places to live for 40 days. It isn’t cheap, but the revenues generated always outweighed the costs and those monies help keep NYRA in the black.
Now, NYRA will have to project. How much will they lose with no fans; how much more would they lose in handle if they ran the Saratoga meet at Aqueduct? The NYRA accountants were working overtime the last few weeks. We know a Saratoga at Saratoga meet will have more handle than one at Aqueduct, but will it be enough to justify moving operations north for 40 plus days, knowing fans will not be permitted on the grounds?
Tracks make money from off-track betting; the number is roughly 30 cents on the dollar, so for every $10,000 bet, NYRA gets about $3,000. When that is added to on-track handle, which stays with NYRA, it’s easy to see why the Saratoga meet–with fans–lines those coffers. The hope is that with other sports out of action, more people will open up online bettering accounts and bet often this summer at the fabled track.
As good as Oaklawn Park did with $41 million wagered on the 14 race Arkansas Derby card, exactly $0 was bet at the track, so at best, Oaklawn got about $14 million.
Right now, track handle across the nation has been good because gamblers are struggling. With most sports on hiatus, horse racing is one sport that can be bet on and bet on now. The tracks that made it through the Covid-19 crisis—Oaklawn, Tampa Bay, Gulfstream and even little Fonner Park in Nebraska—have seen good handle numbers this winter, that despite many workers in the country losing their jobs.
Gamblers—from those that bet $2 to those that bet $200—want the action. They like to watch sports with some skin in the game and many have turned to horse racing to get the adrenaline going. If baseball, basketball, hockey, and gulp, football can’t get back on the field, horse racing should continue to benefit and hopefully, attract new and more importantly, permanent fans. They acquired these new fans by attrition; the key going forward—can they keep them when the team sports come back?
There are those who don’t understand how horse racing can operate and baseball cannot, and the answer is simple. Whether there is or isn’t racing, the horses have to be cared for each day. People have to be on the grounds daily tending to the Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. They need to be walked, trained, bathed and yes, they need to get their workouts in.
We’re all concerned about the spread of the Coronavirus and we’ve seen the virus shut tracks down, but Wal Mart is open, as are grocery stores and collision shops. Horse racing is not “essential,” but in a way—because there are live horses on the grounds—it is. As long as precautions and safeguards can be put in place, more tracks should open as states begin to ease some restrictions. Churchill Downs is planning for a May 16 comeback and harness tracks could follow that lead.
We may not be ready for 30,000 to go through the Saratoga turnstiles this summer, but we may be ready to watch from home and plunk down a few bucks on a big race at “The Spa” in July and August. And, if all goes well, we’ll see a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness, a Belmont, a Travers and a Breeder’s Cup.
Sports fans are passionate, but most are realistic. If it’s too dangerous to play, then the sport shouldn’t be played, but Oaklawn Park, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Park showed that sports can be played, pandemic be damned.
Covid-19 has given sports fans lemons; but there is time to make some lemonade. A Saratoga summer could offer us that.