Meet-End Musings on Cultural Memory

clubhouse view from the turfNearly every day at Saratoga, I’d stop somewhere—in the backyard, walking down the clubhouse steps, standing on the second level and looking back out over the trees and the old saddling shed—and I’d marvel.

I’d marvel at the beauty of the place, and I’d marvel that day after day, thousands of people came: to watch the horses, to bet, to picnic, to socialize. Those moments were a necessary balm in a sometimes turbulent, often frustrating summer, when the question of “What comes next?” was nearly impossible to avoid.

Stability, long elusive in New York racing, continues to be in short supply, as does experienced leadership with institutional and cultural memory of what Saratoga was, and of what Saratoga is.  The good news is that somehow, Saratoga carries on in spite of their absence; the bad news is that the threat of losing what Saratoga is never feels very far away.

It would be difficult to argue that Saratoga 2014 was anything but successful. Handle numbers were respectable; the racing good; the weather nearly perfect. Though apparent early on that this year’s attendance couldn’t be considered anything other than a joke, given the New York Racing Association’s initial decision to withhold attendance from the public, then to offer “enhanced” figures that included all 6,700+ season passes, you didn’t need “official” numbers to know that on most days, a lot of people came to the races at Saratoga.

Greater than the significance of the numbers themselves is what the decisions about them convey: a lack of understanding of what they represent, particularly to the local community. Yes, handle numbers are more significant. But attendance reveals the attractiveness of Saratoga Race Course as a destination. Do people still want to use their vacation days at the Spa? Did more people come than last year? How did the increase in admission prices affect attendance? Thanks to NYRA’s decisions, we’ll never know. Clever move.

No one can argue with a company that wants to balance its budget and be profitable, and NYRA’s efforts in that direction are a laudable and oft-stated priority. Still, some of those efforts sounded a sour note. The opening day feature, the Grade III Schuylerville, was placed as the third race; the closing day feature, the Grade I Hopeful, was the fourth. Even if that sort of Pick 6 gerrymandering is acceptable on other days, it’s embarrassing and insulting on the opening and closing days of Saratoga.

The time-honored tradition of racing for a picnic table on Travers morning was nibbled at several years ago when NYRA offered 100 tables to patrons for a $100 reservation, with the proceeds going to backstretch charities. With more picnic tables in the backyard this year, 130 tables were offered. The good news is that the price remained $100; the bad news is that now NYRA, and not the backstretch, gets the money.

Gone, too, are the recent Labor Day traditions of games and activities in the backyard for kids and free admission for all.

Nearly gone is the 1864 coaching stone, used by customers in the very first year of the track’s existence as they disembarked from their coaches when they arrived at the track. It’s now nestled in a corner near the paddock bar, used as a table by patrons who crowd their chairs around it. A 100-year-old stone, an exemplar of Saratoga’s history, covered daily with empty food wrappers and beer cans, slopped over with garbage. I nearly cried the first time I saw it.

Gone from the clubhouse this year are the Grade I banners that hung from the ceiling, banners that identified the names of the races and the years of their inception, some dating to the 19th century. The banners were there when I visited the track over the winter; they were not on opening day, or any day thereafter.

For the first time in recent memory, Allen Jerkens didn’t come to Saratoga, and on August 3, his wife Elisabeth, a long-time New York owner and breeder, passed away in Florida. The next day, a small gathering was held in the winner’s circle after the third race, a gathering announced moments before it took place, a gathering devoid of Jerkens’ son Jimmy or any of the trainers with whom the Chief worked, and of his many friends at the track, because they didn’t know it was happening, and nor did the track announcer until someone ran upstairs to tell him. A wonderful gesture for a woman much loved and sorely missed, gone badly, insultingly wrong. She, and the Chief, deserved better.

And repeated several weeks later with the presentation of the Mike Venezia Award, this year to John Velazquez for his sportsmanship and citizenship. Venezia died at Belmont Park in a racing accident in 1988.  Formerly voted on by the jockeys, the award this year was given to a recipient chosen via a poll on NYRA’s website, and media were informed minutes before that the ceremony would take place. No release nor advisory was sent; if you didn’t happen to be in the press box when the announcement was made, you’d have missed it. If you were a customer who wanted to be there, you had to be in the right place at the right time.  A jockey who died on the racetrack, and his family, at the track to present the award, deserved better.

There were moments and events to celebrate, too: Jockey Legends Day on August 9 to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund honored the riders with a red carpet procession on the track between races.  On August 10, trainers signed autographs before the races to raise money for pancreatic cancer research in honor of the late Dominic Galluscio; riders did the same later in the month to benefit injured jockey Michael Straight.

NYRA responded quickly and enthusiastically to a proposal from the You Can Play Project, and within days, a groundbreaking video featuring the Saratoga jockey colony was produced. It couldn’t have happened without the support of NYRA executives and employees, who donated time, energy, and creativity at their busiest time of year.

As the New York Racing Association has gone through its various recent iterations, I’ve never been opposed to infusing its leadership with non-racing people; it’s not a bad idea to look at racing with fresh eyes, to bring the best of other industries to this one. But those perspectives have to be a complement to, not a substitute for, leadership by people with understanding of the history of New York racing in general, and of Saratoga in particular.

Saratoga will likely survive, as it has through the cessation of racing for nearly three years because of anti-gambling laws, through a world war that saw racing move downstate, through a re-organization of leadership in 1955, through the prosperity of Aqueduct and Belmont during which closing the Old Spa was seriously considered.

More new hires are afoot at NYRA this fall, including a public information officer for which “experience in professional horse racing, or within the professional sports and/or gaming industries” is “a plus.”  The good news is that knowledge of horse racing is at least partly desirable; the bad news is that it’s on a par with experience in other sports or gaming.

People with experience from football or tennis or casinos may bring to New York racing valuable experience and ideas, but it might be nice, too, to have someone who understands the importance of Elisabeth Jerkens and Mike Venezia, and who might look at an 1864 artifact, dripping with beer, and wonder whether maybe, just maybe, it deserves better.

coaching stone


[Edited for clarity/correctness 8 pm, September 4]

10 thoughts on “Meet-End Musings on Cultural Memory

  1. Thank you Teresa for your summary of the meet. I was curious to hear more from those who made it up there this year. It sounded mostly positive.

    I share your concerns about whether Saratoga will survive the latest iteration of NYRA management. Kay’s specialties are in corporate mergers and land development. It is little disconcerting. There is nothing wrong with a fresh perspective. But, it all comes down to what is the endgame here. I would look in the direction of the Governor’s office for that answer.

    I still cling to the memory of when Frank Stronach first went to Saratoga. He said it just appeared to be a whole lot of property that sat unused for most of the year. I imagine he envisioned a new mall with one of his steakhouses. That would be tragedy!

    • I agree with Stronach that the track should be used throughout the year; it would need some renovating to make it happen, but it’s a shame that such a beautiful place lies dormant for 10 months of the year. I understand that some updates will happen shortly that will allow part of the track to be used as an off-season event space, an idea I love.

  2. As the weather was so nice for the 40 racing days, it really would have been nice to have accurate attendance counts to gauge actual daily attendance as it related to weather, love the decision to more accurately reflect the Giveaway Days attendance, but why not go all the way and not count non attendee passholders? Only then can we really gauge who showed up and how it related to weather and giveaways.

    • Thanks for the reminder about the giveaways, Robert. I meant to include a comment about the vast improvement of this year’s giveaway system. Attendance is more realistic (though still inflated by the many people who go through the turnstiles multiple times), but even better, gone are the long lines to buy extra tickets and collect items. Worked way better this year than in the past.

  3. Numbers (attendance and handle) were down after the first few days and then someone came up with an idea to not divulge attendance…and when people squawked at that, someone came up with the all-season-passes-but-not-actual-attendance attendance number. This was designed to do two things: 1) paint an overall happy picture, counting on the presumption that the NY media and fans were too stupid to question this 2) Tick off one of the boxes (increase attendance/interest) on the Chris Kay 2015 bonus report card. I would imagine that there must be about 17 FOIL requests in right now asking for the actual Saratoga attendance. The fun will start thereafter.

  4. I believe its only a matter of time until Jeff Cannizzo of the New York Breeders becomes CEO of NYRA. Its in his cards and in the best interest of the future of “racing” at NYRA.

    – New York Owner & Fan (not guest)

  5. Thanks for another great piece, Teresa. You write with passion and sincerity and it comes through in every paragraph. I think NYRA decided to be less than transparent with attendance totals this summer was two-fold. For the first time, spinning for Sunday promo giveaways was severely limited which had a negative effect on total gate. Back when I held NYRA’s Marketing Director job in the mid-90s, I wanted to limit number of items per patron but was told I could not because of the impact on attendance. Believe it or not, we also had to provide giveaway items to those attending simulcasts at Aqueduct. Second, admission prices were aggressively increased this year. I’m assuming that kept crowds down, especially on weekdays. While NYRA spinmeisters claimed that all major sports teams count season ticket holders in their daily attendance figures, NYRA needed to show Governor Cuomo what a good job those he put in charge are doing.

  6. Thank you for a very thorough recap. I’m both heartened by what NYRA got right and dismayed by what it got wrong. Perhaps what is most distressing is that some of the most sensitive points — the things that tell you whether they really care about racing in terms other than their own paychecks — were not rocket science. They were easily discoverable: stuff like Allen Jerkens, Mike Venezia, the coaching stone. The fact that no one bothered to pay attention speaks volumes. If NYRA can’t afford or doesn’t see the need to value racing, it could at least hire a racing consultant for stuff like that, listen to him/her, and then act like they care. It would go a long way with longtime fans (remember them? they’re the ones who often bring in the new folks).

    Yeah, I know, it’s all just business. But part of Saratoga’s appeal is that it is and always has been about more than just business.

  7. Great article. Ethics and compliance is a hot ticket item in corporate America, as is customer service. The attendance issue at Saratoga and the NYRA’s handling of it raises the possibility that there is a culture of underhandedness that may extend further than we can see on the surface. If the NYRA is not forthright with announced attendance figures are there other ethic issues that go beyond this?

    Giveaway days have always been a mystery to me. if a tee shirt costs less than $2 to buy and the NYRA provides them free with a $5 admission. Why do they discourage incremental admissions (spinners) and run out of shirts halfway though the program. Seems to me that they are making $3 for every spinner. Procure more shirts! Also, a corporate sell out (Toyota) in the form of a stamped advertisement is shameless and greedy.

    Finally, the Saratoga race fan is not a “guest ” of the nyra as Mr Kay suggests is his corporate inspired pitches. The NYRA corporate suits are caretakers of hollowed ground and are far from Hosts of the party they suggest. Those faces will change but the institution will remain. Saratoga is a gem located in the Capital District and part of the history and social fabric of upstate NY. It belongs to the fans that support it. True customer service is founded in the premise that the customer is foremost and the seller’s key objective is to serve.

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