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