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"Summer Place To Be" Prepares For Saratoga Meet Without Fans

Horseracing at Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Saratoga Race Course will be closed to the public this summer.

Starting Thursday, there will be a highly unusual sight in Saratoga Springs: the world class thoroughbred racing meet will begin with no one in the stands or in the normally packed backyard. Because of the pandemic, the 40-day meet is being held with only essential workers allowed inside. 

Michael Veitch
Credit National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Michael Veitch

Joining us to talk about what to expect at the racing mecca that dates to 1863 is Mike Veitch, the historian at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame – which has also honored his work as a writer. Veitch is the author or co-author of several books on racing and Saratoga, and covered racing for The Saratogian for nearly four decades.

How did you first get interested in the history of racing?

Well, my family's been in racing for well over a century. My great grandfather, Silas Veitch was a trainer and a jockey at the leading Canadian tracks and came to Saratoga around the turn of the 20th century. And my great uncle Sylvester Veitch is a Hall of Fame trainer. He trained for C.V. Whitney and George de Widener. So add to that, that you grow up in Saratoga Springs, and pretty much summertime in Saratoga and horses and family all went together for me.

So we've talked about, you know, what's coming up this summer. There is going to be racing, but not what we're used to in terms of the crowds. How unusual is this summer season for a place like Saratoga?

Well, it's about as unusual and almost weird as it can get. A remark when this situation started to develop a few weeks ago, you would hear a remark that if you have racing in Saratoga with no fans, then you really don't have any racing at all. It's hard to conceive of one of the most popular tracks on the planet and a track that has a tremendous fan base, I mean, the people in Saratoga and Capital District to support thoroughbred racing, they are just the unsung heroes for loving their horses and their game. And it's pretty difficult to think about six and a half weeks of racing here without fans. It really is.

There was some question or debate about whether to even open the meet because, you know, most people who race at Saratoga are based downstate at Belmont. So did you ever think that maybe we wouldn't have a meet this summer at all?

Well, I think you raised a very important point with this. I'm kind of aware of both sides of this. argument and those folks that are still in my network so to speak of racing writers and owners and trainers have talked about this for well, more than a month. And the arguments for staying at Belmont Park are strong. I mean, there are owners and trainers who will not be here because of the situation in Saratoga, not just the pandemic but the fact that there are limitations on where you can go and the situation with downtown. There are those who are going to remain in Kentucky and Florida and not be here. And the other thing here is, you know, everyone should be concerned about the virus. You know, I think NYRA has done a phenomenal job, I've heard that they have in terms of dealing with it so I don't think it’s a premier worry. But again, there are there are legitimate mathematical arguments on you know, some trainers who I know are not coming here because it just doesn't work out for them. I mean, purses are down and you know, a lot of folks don't realize with the casinos closed, purses are down, and you know the math of renting the house or coming up here for a long stay, plus reduced purses, plus no SPAC, no entertainment, etc., etc. A number of them would be more comfortable staying at Belmont Park. I think I can say that.

And just to extrapolate to the city as a whole, this was going to be the first meet of the extended calendar with the two dark days. But, you know, if you don't have the tourists in town, and most things are closed, those two dark days, they just are sort of lost time.

Yeah, no, I agree with that. I mean, we can't we can't change the reality of you know, the summer of 2020. Is it a net gain to have the racing here? I think it probably is a net gain. I think it is for NYRA. You know, they feel that the off track betting and the simulcast outlets will bet more because it's Saratoga rather than Belmont Park. But we're not going to look like we usually do in July and August of a racing summer at Saratoga.

What about the sport as a whole? It's been really interesting to follow the dominoes here, with the change in the schedule for the Triple Crown races and some other premier races. This year, Saratoga’s number one race will be effectively a prep for the Derby, which is was moved to September. What are some of the big changes in the calendar that have come about because of COVID-19?

Well, you know, not only was the Travers bumped but the Alabama stakes as well because the Kentucky Oaks is on the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby, which as we know is Labor Day weekend. Every track has had to sort of think on their feet during a period of suspended animation by losing their normal date. The Triple Crown has suffered, there's no question about that. It's not the normal sequence of races and the Preakness being in October might suffer with some people thinking about the Breeders Cup, but it's really it's really topsy-turvy. And it's changed. It's changed plans. The Travers had to change its normal date because of the Derby is on Labor Day weekend. So you know, it affected Saratoga in that way. But it also affected Churchill Downs. I mean, I'm sure they would have preferred their normal, wonderful week of May. That's Derby week. I've been able to do that a couple of times. And it's there's nothing like it. So this has not just hurt Saratoga. 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 was already in a precarious situation. Even before this, I mean, you know, there's not as many tracks operating, and there's just more competition for gambling dollars, and there's also increased pressure from animal rights groups and so on. So what kind of effect do you think all of this is going to have on racing? Can racing come through the other side here?

Another very good question. I think that racing leaders are starting to wake up to the challenges that are in front of them for the near term future. You mentioned the animal rights group. That's very fair. You mentioned the changes in calendars. You mentioned the reduced purses that I brought up. I think racing, in terms of the money bet has been kind of lucky because it's been the only game in town with so many of the pros ports down but on the other side of the coin, the image of racing, I definitely think is more negative than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago because of the things that you brought up, because of other gambling opportunities. You know, racing has to reassert itself. I mean, it's hard for us to imagine at one time it was the number one spectator sport. It's way, way down the list. But yeah, those challenges are there. Your point is well taken.

What do you think racing leaders should do?

If someone said you can be the czar of racing, I probably would do at least two things right off the bat. I would probably hope that we could have fewer races. By that, I mean fewer meets around the country and make it more like, you know, very, very special to have Gulfstream and Keeneland, and Churchill, and Saratoga, and Delmar, and Santa Anita. I think the second thing would be to work very, very hard as an industry on the problem with the breakdowns and what that's doing to the image of the game and you know, real serious look at okay, you know, horses are breaking down. Why are they doing it? Is it the track surface? Are we breeding a different animal than we did 50 years ago? I think the pros in the game and the racing leaders, and I think they are looking at it, if I was the Tsar, I might say something radical like We're all taking six months off, and we're gonna go into a think tank, and we're not coming out until we get some answers to these things. And you're talking to someone that loves this game more than anyone.

Yeah. There's discussions about what would happen if we took whipping out? Would that make a difference if everybody just agreed to, to take that aspect out of races, and then we've got a separate issue of drugs. I mean, these are really hard problems to solve.

I think the second one is more important than the first. I understand the first in terms of the way that it looks and so do trainers and jockeys. But we do have to remember that, you know, it's kind of nice to have a type of control when you're on set on top of a 1,000 pound animal running fast. The other thing about drugs is not good. We have kind of fallen behind or maybe whatever term you want to use. A lot of the rest of the world does not permit racing on medication, which I think is a fairer term. Actually, we haven't done that in a lot of places in America. Some tracks are starting to prevent it for two year old racing. And I do think it's kind of a bad look for American Racing. Now, this is not to say that during training times, other countries don't use medication. And, you know, I kind of would, would, it sounds nice to say, well, you know, you're never going to give a medication to a horse. Well, you know, most of us humans have medications of one sort or another. And I hardly think that we're accused of this, that or the other thing. But medication on race day is a bad look for American Racing, and that we do have to do something about that.

So let me change gears here and just ask you a few things about the history of Saratoga. It's always mentioned as having begun during the Civil War. So it's been through some really trying times in American history, multiple wars and past pandemics. Have there been any years like this one where racing didn't go for in Saratoga.

Well, I can tell you one year that was would be unforgettable for people who are around at the time. In 1896 there was no racing at all. There was a pretty strong anti-gambling movement in the city and in the state. The owner of the track for the previous five or six years was named Gottfried Walbaum. He was not a very pleasant fellow. He presided over some questionable races in terms of gambling habits. He wasn't that well liked in the city, and probably vice versa. In fact, at one point the city considered building a second track and trying to attack Saratoga Racecourse out of existence. So 1896 was a pretty critical year. 1911 and 1912 there was no racing because of anti-gambling laws. And I think some folks know that in the World War II years 43 through 45, our races were held at Belmont Park. We've had some dark times, no question about that.

How did Saratoga become "the summer place to be" or "the August place to be?" You know, when I was growing up in Saratoga Springs, it was a given that thousands and thousands of people would come and the best races and the best trainers and jockeys would be here. But I imagine that wasn't always the case.

We've had some tough times. As cited previously, in the late 19th century, there was talk in the 1950s and 60s of dropping Saratoga from the calendar because our numbers were not as good as the numbers at Belmont and Aqueduct in Jamaica downstate. But to the point about summer place to be, Saratoga has a very, very rich history even before the Civil War. The hotels here were great. The summer visitors were great. Ironically, when racing started in 1863, and 1864, some of the folks who vacationed in Saratoga would have preferred to not to have racing here. So you know, it waxes and wanes, but as far as America's summer place we have been on, certainly, in my lifetime, a really, really strong run of several decades of Saratoga being very popular. And I do not think it should be overlooked that part of that has to do with the money that's been invested in Saratoga Springs. It's a beautiful city. It might not have been in the 50s and 60s, although the history was there, but gosh, Ian an awful lot of money has been spent saving our Victorian heritage and, you know, carefully crafting ourselves into new developments and new building. And it's a really neat small city. And I think the people of Saratoga get equal credit to the racing side of Saratoga for the summer place to be.

How are you enjoying being the historian at the racing Hall of Fame and also a separate question there, I know there's a renovation going on and new projects underway. So when the museum is able to reopen again, what can people expect?

Well, let's take the second one first. When we reopen with a new Hall of Fame and a new visual center and all the things that go with that it's going to be spectacular. Our president John Hendrickson is fond of saying this will be the museum in the country and with the amount of money that's being spent in the way it's going, I think it's going to be wonderful. And we can't wait to get this out to the public. There's a lot of work still going on right now, but it's going to be a marvelous Hall of Fame. As far as me being historian, well, Ian, you've known me for quite some time. Can you imagine someone offering Michael Veitch the job of historian of racing at the National Museum of Racing? Pretty cool.

It's hard to believe that you didn't have the title before. Really. Last question for you. Where is your favorite place to watch a race at Saratoga?

Oh, I like that question. I can tell you that it's inside the Nelson Avenue gate, on the backstretch there. It's not on the front side. And I love watching them load into the gate. And another place that I like is being on the stretch turn and watching the jockeys getting ready to make their moves on the turn and all of the athletic talent that it takes to be aboard those horses and, you know, get your little lane to get through. Those are my favorites. Not the press box, believe it or not,

Even though that's one of the rare spots with air conditioning.

Yeah, very true.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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