Saratoga may open without fans

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The spring meet at the Aqueduct Race Course showed a lot of promise for Brian Spagnola and America’s Pastime Stables with Talent Scout picking up a two-length victory in a six-furlong race on March 14.

Shortly after that, racing was shut down as well as other professional sports and businesses in an attempt to slow down the spread of the cornonavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We were primed,” Spagnola said. “We had eight or nine horses that were racing and we had seven or eight of them we figured would win their next start. It was just bad timing.”

The shut down is on going, forcing the New York Racing Association to delay the start of the Belmont spring/summer meet before heading north for the 40-day Saratoga meet scheduled to start on July 16 and run through Labor Day.

Wednesday, the plans were thrown a curve as New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo stated Wednesday “You can’t open an attraction that would bring people from across the state to that attraction and overwhelm a region — [the] State Fair in Syracuse, Saratoga Race Track.”

The governor also threw into question whether the state fair will be open this summer. “I don’t think we have time, first of all,” he said. “But today, I don’t think you can open those unless we do it statewide because there is such a pent-up demand to get out of the house and do something.”

Cuomo continued, “You open the Saratoga racetrack, I guarantee you’ll have the highest attendance in the history of the Saratoga racetrack. You would have people from the entire Northeast region driving to the Saratoga racetrack just because they want to get out of the house. You could say that’s great for the Saratoga racetrack — but density is not our friend right now.”

NYRA supported Cuomo’s statement.

“NYRA joins the entire racing community in applauding Governor Cuomo’s steady leadership throughout this unprecedented public health crisis,” NYRA’s Director of Communications, Patrick McKenna, said. “We recognize that decisions about large scale events are rightly left to our elected leaders and public health officials. At the same time, horse racing is in a unique position as a sport that can be safely staged without attendees. Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo encouraged sports entities to consider how they could operate without fans in attendance that would be economically viable while providing much needed entertainment. By closing to spectators and reducing employees and support staff to only those who are required under the rules of racing, the running of races would support the small businesses and hourly workers who form the backbone of the sport. NYRA held races at Aqueduct Racetrack safely and securely under these conditions through March 15. Our experience during this period of time, as well as our ability to continue the training operation at Belmont Park throughout the pandemic, informs the strict safety protocols that we currently have in place at Belmont Park and would seek to implement at Saratoga Race Course.”

The America’s Pastime Stables horses are still training downstate but were set to be moved to Saratoga only to have the April 15 opening day at the facilities Oklahoma Training Track delayed due to the COVID-19 mandates. NYRA is working with the New York State Gaming Commission and public health agencies to determine an appropriate date to safely open the Oklahoma for training and stabling.

“We have like 16 or 17 horses. It has been going well and was exciting,” Spagnola said. “We had some momentum going and were looking to build and maybe have 10 to 15 horses racing at Saratoga. But we will see what happens. Hopefully Saratoga can happen even if it is a no fan situation, but I don’t know why they would transfer all the people and the horses up here if there are no fans anyway. I think they would prefer just to stay at Belmont where people [trainers, backstretch workers, officials] live right there. That is just my opinion.”

NYRA is seeking to resume live racing at Belmont Park in the absence of fans.

“We have prepared operating plans that follow the same model for Saratoga,” McKenna, said. “These plans prioritize the health and safety of employees, horsemen and the backstretch community and include a broad array of risk mitigation strategies developed according to the most updated heath guidance. By closing to the public, layering additional health and safety protocols to our ongoing practices, and reducing the number of employees on-property, NYRA is in a position to provide a small sense of normalcy for fans across the country who can watch on television and online. At the same time, this model will enable NYRA to preserve its ability to serve as the cornerstone of an industry that generates more than 19,000 jobs in New York and $3 billion in annual economic impact.”

Meanwhile, the preparations for racing, with or without fans in the stands, continues.

“Most of the horses have kept training and a couple have been put out in the field for a couple of weeks to freshen up,” Spagnola said. “It has been frustrating. We are fortunate enough that our ownership group is a lot of people who own small percentages so no one is really getting killed but you have to feel for the guys who own all of a horse themselves. Their expenses are like $5,000 a month per horse. It is a hit if you own. Let’s face it, the people who would be at the track, the grooms and the trainers, they are together all morning anyway. The horses are training daily. You can’t leave a race horse in a stall. They are out everyday training. I think once New York City starts to settle in a little bit you will see racing back. It is tough. It has been two months of paying bills like they were racing and no money coming in.”

Another big draw of the Saratoga meet, the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales has been canceled and will be combined into a “2020 Selected Yearlings Showcase” to be held in Lexington, Kentucky, on Sept. 9-10.

“This is a delicate balance, and one that must always prioritize health and safety,” McKenna said. “NYRA has experience finding that balance and we are committed to taking every step possible to keep our communities safe while providing entertainment and contributing to the New York economy as we collectively begin the return to a new normal.”

By Paul Wager

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