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Gov. Cuomo Announces New Capacity Limits For Horse Racing

A small group of owners watches a horse leave the paddock at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
A small group of owners watches a horse leave the paddock at Saratoga Race Course in 2020

The Belmont Park horse racing meet begins next week and, after a year without fans in the stands, some spectators will be allowed in. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard has reaction from Saratoga Springs, where officials are hopeful for a more normal summer season.

Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement during a press call Wednesday.

“Effective next Friday, April 23, spectators will be allowed at auto and horse races at 20 percent capacity for outdoor events, and that will be in line with our guidance for other professional sports events. The health and safety protocols that apply to sports events – face masks, social distancing, proof of completed immunization or recent negative test – will apply here, also.”

In a follow-up statement, New York Racing Association President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said ticketing options for fans will be announced after a further review of guidelines and protocols set for the tracks. NYRA operates racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly said 20 percent, for now, is better than last year, when no fans were allowed at the city’s racetracks.

“I truly believe it is good news at this time because we do have months to go and hopefully we’ll turning in the right, a better direction…”

City finances and businesses throughout Saratoga have suffered without the boost of summer tourism.

Kelly is confident in NYRA’s ability to pull off a successful Saratoga meet during a second year of the pandemic.

“They were here last year running races. They had the backstretch workers there. Everything went really well. They had very few cases and handled all those cases appropriately. So I know that NYRA has a great plan for whatever percentage they give us and they’ll work it out,” said Kelly.

But the governor’s announcement lacks detail. Democratic State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, whose 113th District includes Saratoga Springs, points out that Saratoga Race Course is very different from Belmont Park.

“Insofar as we have the whole backyard as well as the grandstand and the indoor seating. So, I think that, I would hope, that as we get closer to the Saratoga meet – again, with the infection rates going down and vaccination rates going up – we can look at the unique attributes of Saratoga as a venue and come up with a set of capacity constraints that make sense,” said Woerner.

Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Shimkus is frustrated with the lack of specifics.

“We’ve got this one sized fits all state imposed set of regulations as opposed to a local where we could figure out for every site – because every site is different, right? – what’s the safest, healthiest maximum we could have at SPAC versus the track and they’re all different. And that’s the problem here. There’s just not enough local control being allowed,” said Shimkus.

NYRA Communications Director Pat McKenna said NYRA is still awaiting guidance from the state Health Department and New York State Gaming Commission. He acknowledged that a race course is very different from a baseball stadium with fixed seating, for example.

“At Saratoga Race Course, for example, we have traditional stadium-style seating. We also have indoor restaurants, outdoor restaurants, gathering areas that people are familiar with like The Post bar. They’re incredibly popular. So what we need and what the Gaming Commission will issue is guidance that addresses just those questions. We would not be able to open next Friday without knowing, for example, whether patrons can access indoor areas. Are they required to be in a seat? Again, a race track is a much different environment than a baseball stadium.”

It’s also not clear what 20 percent of capacity at Saratoga Race Course is, since attendance has been capped well below record crowd levels for major race days in recent years.  

McKenna added that the expectation is capacity restrictions will be eased in the coming weeks, and said he’s optimistic that capacity will continue to increase by the start of the Saratoga meet in mid-July.

Meantime, horses are already back in the Spa City. Training will begin on the main track, as the Oklahoma track is undergoing maintenance. McKenna says the facilities will remain closed to spectators for the time being.

“So at this point, Saratoga Race Course is closed, the Whitney Viewing Stand is closed to the public and that’s mostly because the Oklahoma Training Track will not be open tomorrow, Saturday… so we’ll make those determinations. Our goal is always to provide more access to the public, especially to the rituals of morning training,” said McKenna.

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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