Saratoga Casino Hotel adjust racing schedule as thoroughbred meet begins
by John Furgele, Harness Racing 228
Saratoga Casino Hotel has made a change—a good one. With the thoroughbred meet across the street about to start, the harness track, in its 80th year, has adjusted its schedule and will now race Monday and Tuesday afternoon and Saturday evening.
It didn’t look like the track was going to make an adjustment. Like many businesses, SCH was deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and because of it the track was racing Monday-Wednesday afternoons in 2021. Handle numbers are decent with the afternoon programs, but for those who work weekdays, getting there for live racing is improbable if not impossible.
The track is trying to take advantage of what everybody hopes will be large crowds at the thoroughbred meet. The harness track will run on Mondays and Tuesdays when the flat track is dark and hopefully will get some good crowds on Saturday evenings once the thoroughbred card is complete.
The track also announced that it’s bringing back its signature event, the Joe Gerrity Memorial for older pacers. The 12th annual pace takes place on July 24. This is a pleasant surprise. Earlier in the year, track officials told me that it was “very unlikely,” that the event would be raced in 2021. It did not take place last year.
It will be for less money. Normally a $260,000 race, this year’s edition has a purse of $150,000 and while that represents a 43 percent drop, at $150k, it will still lure a good field of the game’s older pacers. The Meadowlands Pace is this Saturday and features eight stakes races, one of which includes older pacers. Some of those may run back in the Gerrity and one that might come to the Spa is Leonidas A, last year’s winner of the $150k Potomac Pace at Rosecroft. He raced well at Yonkers this spring and has taken a liking to half-mile ovals and that could serve him well should he race at Saratoga.
Once the thoroughbred meet ends, SCH will revert back to the Monday-Wednesday 12 pm post schedule and it will be interesting to see what the 2022 schedule will look like. Matinee racing is likely to stay, but will the track add a fourth day? The likely answer is no.
Some tracks are experiencing success by racing less. The Meadowlands is the prime example. The Big M only races Friday and Saturday evenings and handle numbers have been strong. Buffalo Raceway has raced Wednesdays and Saturdays since January and has added Fridays as the meet nears its July 17 end.
Next week, Western New York harness racing shifts 30 miles east to Batavia Downs and that track will race Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays in July and August before switching to Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in September, or once the Bills season begins.
Less is more can work in harness racing. Yonkers runs five days a week, 235 days per year and its handle numbers are low for a track that attracts quality horses. I’m not sure what the right number is. As a fan, you want to see more racing, but how does the consumer feel? If you love harness racing, you know that you only have two nights to watch the Meadowlands, so you better not take it for granted. On the other hand, Yonkers goes five days per week—is it taken for granted?
A lot of course depends on horses. Because Yonkers pays high purses, horsemen want to be there and that means full fields. At Buffalo, the purses are lower and like many tracks, you always worry about a horse shortage. When they raced twice a week, Buffalo was putting together 12 and 13 race cards. Now, with an additional day, there are eight races on the cards.
That’s another debate—how many races should be on a card? I have always felt that eight races is too few, but is 12 too many? Is 10 the right number? Is it better to have four days with eight races; or three days with 12-13?
On Tues. July 13, Yonkers had a 12-race card that began at 7:16 pm and ended at 11:13 pm. In a day where the sports fan complains of the 3 ½ hour baseball game, is nearly four hours of harness racing too much?
Last night, Buffalo Raceway put together a nine race card that started at 5:04 pm and ended at 7:55 pm, well under three hours. Buffalo is very good at not having the dreaded post drag, but if you were going to venture out to watch live or bet the whole card from home, being done in under three hours is a victory in itself.
Then, there is the extreme, Northfield Park, in Ohio. The 16-race Saturday card starts at 6:10 pm and the last race has an 11:30 pm post time. On Wednesday (July 14), the last race began at 11:40 pm. In fairness the 16 races had full fields (that’s never a problem at Northfield), so what is the track supposed to do? The horsemen are there, they want to race, so why not write the races?
As always, there isn’t an easy answer to these issues. Tracks like Buffalo want you in and out—10 races, three hours—while tracks like Northfield know people will come in, leave and perhaps come back later in the evening. Those in the East are unlikely to watch Race 16 at 11:40 pm, but for the harness player in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones, that’s prime time. Again, no easy answers.
Harness racing is having a good year. Overall handle is up, as is per race betting. Last year helped harness racing. With MLB, NBA and NHL seasons suspended because of Covid, harness racing was one of the only sports being conducted. It appears that some fans have remained even with things getting back to normal.
With summer reaching its halfway point, that means its time for thoroughbred racing at the Saratoga Race Course. Let’s hope the 2021 meet sees good weather and great crowds and let’s give kudos to Saratoga Casino Hotel for making a good move and for bringing back the Gerrity.