Horse racingfans are getting ready for 40 days of fun in the sun as the Saratoga Race Course prepares for its 147th meet, which starts today. There have been many changes to the Spa, some good, some not so good. As NYRA continues to look for ways to extract as much cash as they can from their profitable venture, those that attend will be paying a bit more to see what is arguably the best horse racing in the world.
It is easy to pile on NYRA for the things they have done wrong. Was it wise to cancel the annual open house? Probably not and when you hear or read that the event cost NYRA $25,000 and they cut it save money, its cancellation make it even sadder. For some, it was the only time that they could bring their families to the racecourse. And, to save $25,000, which is nothing more than chump change to an organization that recently saw 90,000 people descend upon Belmont Park to see American Pharoah win the Triple Crown. That said, there are 11 non-profits that volunteer their time to work the open house, and according to NYRA CEO Chris Kay, most did not make enough money to justify the time and energy to make it happen. Unfortunately, most in the local media only told one side of the story, and those articles made NYRA out to be the bad guy. You can’t run an open house without organizations willing to volunteer their time as well as their goods and services.
NYRA is also renting picnic tables during the meet and the prices vary. A little more on weekends, a little less on weekdays, a lot more on Travers and Whitney day. You can also rent a table at the sports bar where you can follow the races as well as sports from around the country. Is that a bad thing? The answer is as long as people are willing to rent them, no. We, as a society love to complain about how things used to be simpler and now things have become more expensive, yet we consume more than ever. We love our $5 Starbucks coffee. Is NYRA wrong to think that we won’t love out $100 picnic table on Travers Day?
That’s the puzzling trend that is American these days. Many feel that they are entitled and that everything needs to be available to all. The truth is, that is not the case. Saratoga feels like it belongs to all, that everybody should be allowed to enter the hallowed grounds regardless of economics. But, this is not a right. Nobody has a right to attend Saratoga, a Yankees game or a New York Giants football game. We lament that prices having gotten out of whack, but people seem more than willing to pay to attend. It’s hard to knock NYRA when all 150-picnic tables are sold out for both the Whitney and Travers.
It is simple. Those who want to go to the Travers, but can’t afford it, complain. They argue that Saratoga is being taken away from them, claiming that it is their right to go to the event. It is your right to vote, it is your right to freedom of religion, being able to go the Travers is not a right in the least. There was a time when ticket prices were inexpensive, where the factory worker, doctor, teacher and lawyer could sit together in the lower mezzanine but as Americans became consumed with consuming it all changed. NFL owners floated the idea of personal seat licenses, where the fan pays a one-time fee for the right to purchase season tickets and guess what? It worked!
NYRA is a business. They run three tracks. They struggle to make money at Belmont and they lose it at Aqueduct. If it weren’t for the casino at Aqueduct, who knows what NYRA would do? Saratoga is their moneymaker and right now, they’re making money. This year, they required season seat holders to buy a $35 grandstand admission pass or a $55 clubhouse admission pass in addition to the prices for the tickets. Is that bad? Well, let me see how many people are going to give up their seats because of it. If you’re paying $1700 for two clubhouse seats, are you really going to squawk over another $110?
There may come a time, as my dad used to say where NYRA–and Saratoga–go ass over tea kettle; where they raise prices so much that the public says enough and crowds drop by 100,000 or more, but that won’t happen this year and as long as NYRA stays in tune, they should be fine. All in all, getting into the place is still relatively cheap. It’s $5 to enter and roam the grounds, another $3 to get into the clubhouse. Even though that doesn’t get you a seat, it’s still not a bad price to see some great racing.
As far as the racing goes, this will be another stellar season at the Spa. Since Martin Panza took over as Senior Vice President of Racing Operations, he and NYRA have created “festival days,” for lack of a better word. Some have referred to them as mini-Breeder’s Cup days,” where instead of having a feature stakes race and a minor race, they have flooded the card with multiple stakes contests, all with big purses.
While some think the great stakes races should be spread out over the meet, I tend to like the event days and if you’re trying to lure people to the television, you have to do this. Americans love events more than ever. There were 74,000 fans at Met Life Stadium to watch the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals, so why wouldn’t they love a racing card packed with star power?
There are 13 races at Saratoga with purses of $500,000 or more and on Travers Day, there are six of them and the seventh–the Ballston Spa–offers $400,000. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont have moved races to stuff their big days and the result is more fans and most importantly, more betting.
Each Saturday is a special day, and there are only seven of them. There is the feature race and the number in parenthesis indicates how many total stakes’ races are in that day’s card.
Saturday, July 25: Diana Day (2)
Saturday, August 1: Jim Dandy Day (3)
Saturday, August 8: Whitney Day (5)
Saturday, August 15: Fourstardave Day (2)
Saturday, August 22 Alabama Day (3)
Saturday, August 29: Travers Day (7)
Saturday, September 5: Woodward Day (5)
Yes, there are stakes races each day and there are quality stakes races on Sunday, too, but Saturday is where NYRA wants to capitalize. And, for the record, the underrated day of that list is Alabama Day. Never sleep on the fillies going 1 ¼ on the third Saturday in August.
In addition to the above-mentioned days, Friday, August 28 is New York Breds Day, with six stakes races for New Yorkers highlighted by the $250,000 Albany Stakes, the third jewel in the Big Apple Triple Crown.
NYRA, because it is a public entity will always feel the heat. On Wednesday, July 22, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame hosted a panel discussion for the upcoming meet. The panel of four included radio host Steve Byk, NYRA track announcer Larry Collmus, trainer Gary Contessa, and NYRA CEO Chris Kay. Kay was testy as patrons showed their disdain over table rentals, the cancellation of the open house, lower stakes purses in two-year-old races and access to the sports bar. Kay kept his composure, but being there, I got the sense that he was put off by the bellyaching. At times, I thought he might stand up and say, “I’m running a business here, and we’re trying to make money.” He refrained, but the agitation was clear. One woman, who has been coming to the track for 45 years, was particularly critical, but to me, it was clear that she was stuck in 1985 when in reality, it is 2015. As much as we prefer the simpler times, they have changed and as long as NYRA listens and responds, they can keep their Saratoga following.
I give Kay credit here. Rather than be a sweetheart and say that he would look into this and look into that, he was stern. He defended the actions of NYRA and didn’t seem to be afraid to ruffle the feathers of those in attendance. The woman above didn’t get up and leave even though Kay did not quell her frustration. To her credit, she stayed and listened to the rest of the program. The people there are fans of the sport and that’s why they get frustrated because they care so much. The casual fan can wave his hand in disgust over $100 picnic tables, but the true fan doesn’t because they want to be there because they love it so much.
It was good discourse. It would be easy to bury our head in the sand and say the racing will be great, the crowds will be great and those in attendance will have a blast each and every of the 40 days, but that is never smart. The best businesses and organizations are always looking for ways to make more money and to provide the best experience that they can to those who support their endeavor. It is fine and delicate balance. You will never please everybody, something that the New York Racing Association knows all too well.