Saratoga readies for another season amid turmoil
When the starting gate opens for the first race on opening day of Saratoga Race Course's 142nd season, all the troubles roiling the thoroughbred racing industry seem to take a back seat to the action on track.
The problems, though, aren't going to disappear just because Saratoga makes its annual return to the racing spotlight starting Friday, drawing many of the top horses, trainers and jockeys, and biggest crowds to the sport's glitzy summer retreat.
''Disappear probably wouldn't be the right word,'' said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. ''Saratoga is arguably the premier meet for American racing, so some of the political stuff gets put on the back burner.''
The ''political stuff'' includes years of wrangling in Albany over selecting an operator of 4,500 video slot machines to be installed at Aqueduct Racetrack, debate last spring over a $25 million loan sought by the New York Racing Association, and a recently released state audit that criticized NYRA for continued ''fiscal mismanagement.''
NYRA, which operates Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont Park, said the loan was needed to keep the organization afloat while it awaits the millions of dollars in revenues expected from the Aqueduct racino. NYRA got the loan in late May, while yet another bidding process was launched to select an operator for the downstate racino project.
After previous efforts to award the Aqueduct racino contract ended because of political squabbles and financial issues, the Paterson administration has narrowed the field of bidders to a lone entry after two dropped out of the running and two others were disqualified.
The governor's decision on the bidder is expected in early August, when Saratoga is in full swing and many of racing's movers and shakers are in town for the 40-day meet, up from the usual 36 racing days.
Running through Sept. 6, the grand old track has added four days at a time when other racing venues from Southern California to Kentucky are cutting dates or purses, or both, in an effort to reverse the sport's downward trend amid a sputtering economy.
Some in the industry worry that adding more races when some tracks are having difficulty filling cards will result in a diluted product at the Spa, long known for its high-quality racing.
''I worry that our product won't be as strong,'' said H. James Bond, a Saratoga County-based trainer and breeder. ''People come here to see world-class racing. You'll see great horses here. Unfortunately, you're also going see a lot of horses that wouldn't have been racing here just a few years ago.''
Others say don't sweat it, Saratoga is Saratoga.
''Four days for a meet like Saratoga, I don't know if you're talking about a lot of dilution there,'' said Eric Mitchell, editor of Blood-Horse magazine. ''Saratoga is a unique meet, it's considered a boutique meet. It has one of those reputations of being an event and people go out of their way to attend the Saratoga meet. I think that makes it a bit more resilient of a meet than you'll find otherwise.''
Saratoga showed some of that resilience last year, when overall attendance at the nation's racetracks dropped by more than 10 percent. Saratoga's attendance actually increased 5 percent, topping 900,000 for the 10th time in the past 11 years, although on-track handle dipped by 2 percent to $112 million.
NYRA president Charles Hayward said he's confident Saratoga can live up to its reputation, despite tough economic times that have impacted the breeding industry and resulted in a sharp decline in the number of thoroughbreds.
''If there's any race meet that can swim against the tide, as you will, it's certainly Saratoga,'' he said.
While the allure Saratoga holds for racing fans hasn't dimmed, the same can't be said for NYRA's downstate tracks. Aqueduct, home to New York's winter racing meet, draws sparse crowds, while Belmont only occasionally hits five-figure attendance during its two meets bracketing the Saratoga season. The handle at Aqueduct and Belmont are down this year by 8 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, Hayward said.
The Aqueduct racino plan has drawn criticism from some quarters. An editorial in Monday's Daily News of New York called for Gov. David Paterson and the Legislation to ditch the Aqueduct plan and instead urged state officials to scrap the slots, move racing operations to nearby Belmont and redevelopment the Aqueduct property for non-racing uses.
Mitchell, for one, isn't worried about how Saratoga will fare this year. He can't say the same about NYRA's other two tracks.
''People are going to show up (at Saratoga) and the attendance is going to be OK, and the racing is going to be good, so it's not hard to start feeling optimism when that meet is going on,'' he said. ''But when that meet's over, they're back to Belmont and then it's back to reality.''