It is here and this year, it arrives earlier than usual. There once was a time when Saratoga Race Course raced 24 times per year and was advertised as “The August Place to Be.” Over time, that became 30, then 36 and now with 40 dates, it is “The Summer Place to Be.”
The new wrinkle for 2019 is a change in the racing schedule. Instead of the Spa opening on Friday, July 19 and racing six days per week over seven weekends, it will now open Thursday, July 11 and race five days per week over eight weekends.
I like the change. Sure, having an extra weekend is good for the bars, restaurants, hotels and for those who rent their houses out, but the racing product will benefit the most. When you race six days per week, it’s really difficult to fill fields. Nobody wants to see races with four and five horses. The extra day off should help in that regard. I don’t think the NYRA is going to overcompensate by having 12 and 13 races each day. Let’s have nine or ten and be done with it. We know there will be exceptions on the big days–Diana, Jim Dandy, Alabama and Travers–but let’s keep the number reasonable.
The Opening Day card looks good. There are 10 races; two stakes races along with a $92,000 allowance race on the dirt and a $90,000 Maiden Special Weight race on the turf; that is serious money for races of that nature. In the 10 races, there are 113 starters, ranging from seven to 16.
Friday offers more of the same—one stakes race, 10 races, and 109 starters. This is what we all want to see. The more horses, the more options for the bettor and usually, that means more handle. And, for NYRA, that’s important because Saratoga is the money maker; it keeps NYRA in the black.
Being dark on Monday and Tuesday will be an adjustment. Even though Monday attendance was lower, there were people who attended on that day for that reason. Mondays offered easy access, room to roam and shorter lines and for some, losing Monday does come with some sadness. But with heightened awareness of horse safety, it’s probably a good concession to be dark two consecutive days. There are very few racetracks that run more than four days per week, so even a 5-day week won’t be easy. Belmont and Saratoga can do it because the purse money is very good, which in turn, attracts more trainers and owners.
Another thing you will see lots of at The Spa this year is turf racing. The strange thing about horse racing is that even though all the American classic races are on dirt, the betting public loves turf racing. With turf racing, you see larger fields and better options for bettors. In addition, turf racing holds to form more than dirt. That makes it easier for the bettor to wheel the favorite with others in the hopes of attaining that big payout.
If you think turf racing isn’t big, look at Woodbine in Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada. Once home to three tracks—tapeta, turf and harness—it is now the home of two turf courses and tapeta. The harness track was torn up so an inner turf course could be installed. Mohawk Park was then winterized to accommodate 12 months of harness racing. To see how popular turf racing is, all one has to do is look at the entry lists.
Opening Day at Saratoga has 6 of its 10 races on turf; the next day–it’s 6 of 10 again. And, just to compare, Wednesday’s Woodbine card features eight races with four of those on the turf. And sprints, once just reserved for dirt have become enormously popular on the turf. Three of the Opening Day Saratoga turf races will be contested at 5 ½ furlongs.
Saratoga will offer plenty—big crowds, big purses, lots of turf racing and high prices. A day at the Spa is not cheap. Most will pay the $7 general admission, find a picnic table, plop down a Captain’s Chair and be fine. But, if you want a seat, visit a bar, or sit in Club 1863, you’ll have to pay some big bucks.
There are ways to minimize costs. The Johnny Furgele Way (patent pending) is one where I park in the free lot, hop on the free school bus shuttle, pay the $7 and plant my chair in the picnic area. Because I like to watch the races live, I will saunter up to the clubhouse, pay another $3 and watch races from behind the seats. If you keep your betting to a minimum, you can escape relatively unscathed. Of course, if you start winning, that changes everything.
Good luck and have fun!