The Saratoga Race Course meet starts Thursday with new restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public safety officials say if you want to watch the races, you’ll have to do it on TV.
The New York Racing Association and Saratoga Springs officials say the 40-day meet will be held without spectators, on-site betting, or jockeys from out of state.
Because of the pandemic, Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton is asking fans to celebrate and watch the race at home this year.
“In fact we have asked NYRA to put up privacy fencing around the track so that you won’t be able to see in,” Dalton said. “And they were very cooperative and have done that – and that is for the collective safety of the community and also to make sure we can continue to celebrate racing this year and every year to come.”
Assistant Chief of Police John Catone says he is already seeing fans on social media drumming up support for tail-gating near the track, which is discouraged.
“I think they were trying to get more steam, you know,” Catone said. “And get more people involved in it. And we were like, ‘Yeah we have to cut this off… You have die-hard race fans. This is a part of their livelihood and they want to be as normal as possible. So we’re just trying to discourage it. For one year – let’s go a different route.”
Catone says two Saratoga Springs police officers will be on site with a bomb dog.
“Making sure that we do not have any issues on the Union Ave side or the Nelson Ave side in terms of fans showing up with coolers and lawn chairs etc.,” Catone said. “And creating social distancing, pedestrian traffic flow issues, traffic issues, out on those two main streets.”
NYRA Director of Communications Pat McKenna says in addition to the privacy fence, mandatory masks and social distancing, the race course will not allow jockeys from outside the New York circuit to come in for mounts.
“It’s an acknowledgment of the difficult position that a number of other states find themselves in,” McKenna said. “There’s been an inconsistent response when it comes to the pandemic in a number of different locations and again this is a health and safety measure that prioritizes the health of these athletes.”
In neighboring New Jersey, the summer meet at Monmouth is open to a limited number of fans — a tiny fraction of its 60,000-person capacity.
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Historian Michael Veitch says it won’t be the typical summer for racing.
“This has not just hurt Saratoga,” Veitch said. “It's forced almost every major track to deal with dark days, calendar changes, problems with transportation, worries about corona. A lot of folks are, I think, gonna stay home.”
Racing continues for 40 days, with Monday and Tuesday off, through Labor Day.