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Saratoga Race Course Opens Without Cheering Crowds

The horses, jockeys and trainers were on the track today in Saratoga Springs for the start of the summer meet. But the fans had no choice but to stay home.

There was the bell, but no bugler, before the first race at Saratoga. With no fans in the stands, you could hear the lawnmowers buzzing away in the infield.

New York Racing Association President and CEO David O’Rourke looked around at the empty stands. On a normal opening day, tens of thousands of people would be coming through.

“In terms of not having fans here, I mean, everybody’s heartbroken about that. We’re just trying to be safe. We’re going to be producing, basically, everything will be on television – all the races that we’re running here. We’re still trying to deliver that product. And we’re just trying to make the best of what we can do, safely.”

During a shortened 25-day spring meet at Belmont, thoroughbred racing was one of the only sports still being televised during a time of coronavirus shutdowns. Even without fans in the stands, spectators at home were enthusiastic about placing their bets, with the average daily handle up 42 percent according to NYRA.

For the Saratoga meet, O’Rourke is not expecting huge losses, even without the thousands of daily visitors.  

“In terms of what we projected, it’s similar to last year. Of course, we’re hoping for upside.”

There was no roar of the crowd as the first horses broke from the starting gate, but caller John Imbriale gave an enthusiastic “and they’re off at Saratoga.”

The first race was a close finish, with 4-year-old thoroughbred Grit and Glory taking the lead.

Trainer Linda Rice acknowledged the strange feeling in the air.

“Very strange, but winning is still the same. Whether, it’s Belmont or Saratoga, it’s exciting to win a race, it’s always exciting to win on opening day.”

Rice notched a victory last year on opening day, too.

It was winning Jockey Luis Cardena’s first race at Saratoga.

“You know, usually you hear the fans screaming and stuff, but still, it’s exciting to be here. Especially it’s my first year and my first and win it, it means a lot to me.”

Grit and Glory’s owners were not present, but starting Friday a limited number of owners will be allowed on the premises.

Many fans this year will watch the races from home or at one of the many viewing parties being hosted at local bars and restaurants.

In a large room at Racing City Brewing Company, race fan Anne Bohen clapped as her pick won the second race, being projected on the back wall.

“We would be at the track but this is a great substitute, so…awesome.”

With tables spaced at least six-feet apart, Racing City Brewing Co-Owner Debreen Oliva was happy to host the first viewing party of the summer meet.

“We’ve got the space. We’re able to have a decent amount of people here and still socially distance. It’s nice having the garage door open for a little bit of air circulation…”

Local officials want the state to allow fans back at the flat track before the end of the season, though.

113th District state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who was on the Racing City Brewing guest list along with State Senator Daphne Jordan and Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly, says she understands the balance that must be struck in order to reopen during the pandemic.

“I don’t think they have closed the door to that, but it is really a function of ‘how are the numbers doing, how are we doing in the Capital Region, how’s the state doing.’ I mean, opening the track to fans means we’re going to bring in people from across the – not just Saratoga County – but across the Capital Region, across New York State, and other states. It’s that big of a draw.”

In the meantime, a privacy screen has been erected around the track to keep fans away for their own safety. The meet runs through Labor Day with Mondays and Tuesdays dark.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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