Opening Day is upon us. No, not the one that brings out sundresses and seersucker suits. It is the 2017 opening for harness racing at Saratoga Casino Hotel. Now, based on the name of the venue, many might think that harness racing no longer exists in the Spa City, but 2017 will be season 76 for the half-mile oval on Nelson Street. Many harness tracks now offer more than harness racing, but they have referenced harness racing in the venue name. To the west, we have Vernon Downs Casino and to the southwest, we have Tioga Downs Casino, but for some reason, the folks at Saratoga have tried a different marketing approach. The good thing is that there 169 racing dates for 2017
This Sunday, there are 12 races with a post time of 12:15 pm. The feature race is a $12,000 Open Handicap. This pales in comparison to day one at the Saratoga Race Course, where the feature race is the $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes. And, there are those who will never be fans of harness racing, but the good news is that both harness and horse racing have co-existed in Saratoga since 1941.
The Empire State is home to plenty of harness racing. In addition to Saratoga, the state has tracks in Buffalo, Batavia, Tioga, Vernon, Monticello and Yonkers. Yonkers and Monticello run all year while the others vary. Out west, Buffalo runs from January through July and then Batavia picks up from July-December. A NYRA rotation if you will.
What will the crowd be like this Sunday? A few hundred? Less? More? We know that the gaming floor will have plenty of patrons and it's too bad that some of them won't venture to the harness track to make a wager and watch some solid work from pacers and trotters.
Too many casinos?
New York State wants your hard earned money. In addition to lottery, scratch-offs, Quick Draw, horse racing, harness racing, there are now plenty of casinos available to help New Yorkers strike it rich. Is there a saturation point? How many more gambling options can there be? I always wonder where people come up with the money to venture to casinos and gamble away, but it seems like New Yorkers appetite for gambling continues to grow.
And, we might have a victim. The del Lago Casino opened in the Seneca County town of Tyre, 30 miles east of Finger Lakes Race Track, which in addition to racing has video gaming machines. The folks that run Finger Lakes racing are upset for several reasons. One, they didn't want a full-blown casino that close. Two, they think that the casino or state should guarantee purses for racing. This is an ongoing feud to the point where the track--which normally runs an April to December calendar--hasn't released its 2017 schedule. The track has been complaining about this for quite some time, fearing that a casino would seriously dent their revenues. Some say that if something isn't done, the purses, which are already on the low side, will drop so significantly that the track might have to close.
Nobody wants to see horse racing suffer, but the folks at Finger Lakes (owned by Delaware North) have done very little to support the horse racing game. When VGMs were allowed, they had to be at horse racing tracks. The thought was that revenues would prop up purses in horse and harness racing and while they have, those that run the racinos think of racing as an afterthought. The relationship between the horsemen and Delaware North has always been rocky and obviously, this hasn't helped the situation.
I don't think Delaware North would shed many tears if horse racing disappeared but that is short-sighted. There are many that work in the horse racing operation at Finger Lakes and those jobs would go elsewhere if racing ceased. And, Upstate New York needs people who earn incomes because income earners pay taxes.
Most of the racinos have done a poor job of marketing horse and harness racing to people. Saratoga Casino does plenty of advertising and marketing, but harness racing is rarely--if ever-- mentioned. Racing is there if you need it, but very little is done to attract people to the racing portion of these centers.
That's too bad, because the Race Course does a fantastic job of marketing racing. They sell the experience, from racing to picnicking to partying and for years, people have responded. When you have 35,000 patrons there, how many really know anything about horse racing? They are there for the fun and good times. The racing helps, but it isn't everything.
Both Finger Lakes and the harness tracks have an opportunity to market the entire experience to younger folks. Why not reach out to the hipsters, the ones with disposable incomes and market the night out, the experience? Saratoga, for example, has live entertainment, a night club, two restaurants, a hotel AND harness racing (at least 160 plus days). Why can't they do more to attract new fans to the sport of harness racing? Why not offer some betting vouchers to force people to the track for at least a race or two? Is that too hard to do? Are they afraid of giving away their product?
There has to be a better way to plug the sport. I still remember the 11 pm sportscasts where the daily double was given. The words, "finally, the daily double of 4 and 2 paid $36.30 at Buffalo Raceway tonight, here's hoping you had it," still resonate with me.
Harness racing is not an easy sell. Last August, the Hambletonian, the most prestigious race in the harness racing world drew about 75,000 viewers on the CBS Sports Network live telecast. In fairness, the race was on a Saturday in August when people are out enjoying the last month of their summers, but as Tip O'Neill once said, "all politics is local." There were over 20,000 in attendance at Meadowlands for the day, which to me, indicates that Americans like one-off events. They will support some things once a year, yet what is done to keep them coming back?
What can harness racing do to attract the locals to the venues to watch some racing? Last year, 2015 Horse of the Year Wiggle It Jiggleit came to Saratoga to race in the $250,000 Jim Gerrity Memorial. There were a couple blurbs in the local papers but nothing substantial. With newspapers the way they are now, there aren't enough reporters to go out and find the stories and as a result many of the stories you see are written by public relations agencies. Why wouldn't The Albany Times Union run a story written by the marketing department of the Saratoga harness track? If the track doesn't care to market itself, should the media care?
Here's hoping the weather is good for this Sunday as season 76 begins at Saratoga Raceway (sorry, I have to use racing in the title) and that the crowd is better than 100 or 200. The pacers and trotters will put on a good show and I'm sure they'd appreciate some love from the local community.
Until next time.