From the Rooftop at Belmont at Saratoga

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The Racing:

Simply put, the Thursday, Friday and Sunday cards were what handicappers would expect for those days during a summer meet and higher quality fields with more entrants than offered downstate. The Belmont Day card was spectacular. Equine athletes Cogburn, Thorpedo Anna, Ice Chocolat, Baby Yoda, Randomized, Book’em Dano, National Tresure, Measured Time, and Dornock delivered impressive performances. I wonder, however, how these cards, loaded with star athletes racing in graded stakes races, suck the oxygen from regular weekend racing. It begs the question:  Is the long-term picture of Thoroughbred Racing a reduction of the product to only a “Big Race Day” model?  

The Outcome:

The New York Racing Association released figures, and Daily Racing Form’s David Grening reported: “All-sources handle for the four days of racing (during Belmont at Saratoga) was $197,426,085, a 9.8-percent increase over the previous Festival high of $179,779,835 recorded in 2018 at Belmont Park when Justify was going for – and completed – the Triple Crown.” $197.4 million in handle delivers a decisive statement about racing fans in America. Whenever racing is staged from Saratoga Racecourse, for however long, fans replenish their ADW accounts, re-load their bankrolls, and send it in.  

That fact has been true in my lifetime since Saratoga was the “August Place to Be” during a 24-day meet, and the incremental expansion from 24 to the current 40-day iteration. That fact plays in the minds of NYRA executives as they negotiate what appears to be a Gaming Commission and Saratoga community opposed to further expansion. Equally important is the question of staffing the facility. The expense of relocating downstate staff for longer periods and difficulties in hiring locals are, in my view, significant factors when discussing further expansion. 

New Rules  

How much did the “new rules” impact locals? Were new rules necessary? Handle aside, loyal and regular track attending upstaters were disconcerted when NYRA announced changes to protocols and privilege in force for decades. Prohibiting coolers of alcoholic beverages and imposing modifications to the daily competition for free picnic tables were not well received. NYRA effectively lifted and moved its New York City version of protocols and laid them over the Saratoga facility. Increasing pricing ($14 beers and $34 Pizzas, for example) was decidedly unpopular. That is not to say vendors did not sell their wares. 

Thursday’s attendance was like any Thursday during a summer meet, as was Sunday’s. Out of towners made their presence felt for the Friday and Belmont Day cards. How much these changes impacted attendance for the non-Belmont cards remains an unanswerable question. I started this section asking you to put the handle aside. But remember the Golden Rule in horse racing. The handle is gold; gold rules. 


The most significant renovation was the complete makeover of the lower clubhouse area, specifically the Jim Dandy Bar. The bar area itself is spectacular. To make change possible, expansive restrooms for men and women were demolished. The unintended consequence of this design, moving restrooms behind the Jim Dandy, resulted in unbearable lines for guests. (Note that was also true throughout the facility on Belmont Day with hour-long lines of guests seeking relief.)  Missing, and victim of the progress of renovation, is the white odds board powered by light bulbs. Golly gee, what happened to historic preservation?

The Future:

It has recently been reported that construction of the new Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, will not be completed until the third quarter of 2026. That means the Saratoga Racecourse will host Belmont at Saratoga for at least two more yearly dates. Handle suggests no change to the 4-day Festival. Local fans should gird themselves for what will become an annual event for the foreseeable future.   

The Dilemma:

The future of Thoroughbred Racing as a sport and its place in the phenomenal response to legalized sports betting is, at best, clouded. Playing the races is a game of skill, significantly different in form to sports betting. I maintain its cultural. America is a ball-sport culture from toddler to the grave: baseball, soccer ball, football, tennis ball, bowling ball, lacrosse ball, softball, golf ball, ping pong ball. The horse, think buggy and farm worker, was once part of the culture. The Model T replaced the buggy. The population gravitated to cities. Americans lost their connection to the horse other than through live Thoroughbred racing. In areas of the country where tracks and breeding farms exist, Thoroughbred racing remains part of the local culture. Racetrack meets in those areas succeed and thrive. Saratoga became, and is, NYRA’s gem. The newly constructed Belmont Park is expected to reinvigorate and reenergize interest in racing in the New York City region. But this ain’t Field of Dreams. “Build it and they will come” may not result in the stream  of cars along the Cross Island Expressway exiting on Hempstead Turnpike. However, in this era of simulcasting-no problem. New York loves its ball teams. NYRA is building it. NYRA must help make New Yawkas choose betting on horses as part of their sports betting action by providing full fields, quality racing, fan education and player development as part of its mission. 


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