Let me start off this opinion piece by stating the obvious fact of the matter: The New York Racing Association (NYRA) has already announced that Saratoga Race Course will open, but without fans this year. (This being in accordance with the governor’s mandate about “attractive nuisances.”) NYRA’s President and CEO David O’Rourke recently told the Times Union of this year’s track season: “It will obviously be quieter and there will be sadness mixed with joy. We have joy because we will be able to run the races, but it will be something we will never want to repeat.” Talk of a track-less summer has led to predictions of a fast-approaching economic tsunami, sure to lay waste to Saratoga’s and the region’s businesses, to the tune of more than $200 million in losses.
Not so fast. What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could still have a Saratoga summer to remember? I have a few ideas, some crazier than others. Let me start with the sanest ones.
If my math is correct, Saratoga should be through phase four of its reopening by July 15, just one day prior to the original start date of the 40-day track season. Even without fans roaming around the grounds of the track, some at the rail, some in the Grandstand or Clubhouse, others in the 1863 Club, I think our city can still sell residents and a trickle of outsiders—even a steady stream, as long as social distancing measures, face masks and crowd sizes are strictly enforced—on a virtual track experience. Once bars and restaurants reopen, that’ll open things up to allowing fans to have reduced capacity horse racing-themed parties around town, with live racing being beamed from Saratoga Race Course on big screens, and fans wagering on races via smartphone apps such as NYRA Bets, DRF, TwinSpires, Xpressbet and others. They can smoke their cigars, read their Daily Racing Forms and have a dandy old time.
If the above experience sounds vaguely familiar to some, it is, in fact, what thousands of horse racing fans do at Saratoga Race Course every summer anyway. They set up shop in the backyard area or at the Picnic Paddock, near the TVs, and watch the races from there. Some fans never even watch a single live race at the rail! They bet on their apps. They have a good time. Nothing really new about that, right? But what if some local business owners chipped in to up the ante on that experience a bit. For example, car dealerships—the ones with the biggest lots in town—could let groups of two or four racing fans into their parked, unsold cars, with the air-conditioning going; set up a big projector screen in a central location; and let people watch the races from there, drive-in movie style. (Some people might get so comfortable in said cars that they might even buy them and drive them off the lot.) The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) could also pitch in for the biggest races of the year—the Travers, the Whitney, the Alabama—and allow fans in parked cars to watch those races in a similar drive-in format in their massive parking lot. Hey, maybe one of those car dealerships could sponsor the event and bring along a few carloads of fans to show off their wares? Fans could also congregate in the safety of their closed vehicles at any number of outdoor drive-in movie theaters in the area; or at the number of empty fairgrounds. Any farmers in the area have fields that they’d be comfortable allowing racing fans to watch the races on? (Of course, we’d pay for our time.) Cars could be parked in the field, and a large screen could be set up to watch the races there. Hell, Saratoga could even shut down Broadway, à la the Victorian Streetwalk, for several hours on Travers Day, and people could watch the race in the middle of the street. Sound like it could work with a little creativity and pre-planning? I think it could.
Now, let me take that concept a step further—into la-la land, for some—but a step further no less. What if NYRA, with the blessing of Governor Andrew Cuomo, partnered with the City of Saratoga to shut down the strip of Union Avenue, just off of Exit 14, in front of Saratoga Race Course during previously designated hours of the day—say, in the early morning (around the time breakfast at the track used to take place) or closer to the evening (when the featured races run)? The city could block off incoming traffic, setting up a temporary detour down Henning Road, allowing cars with a maximum of say, four racing fans inside each to park, side by side, along the Oklahoma Training Track side of the road to “watch” the morning workouts or featured races on a portable projector screen on the track or Union Ave. side of the fence. (That would be up to NYRA to sort out before July 16.) And on a daily basis, throughout the season, NYRA could offer, through a special lottery system—with all of the COVID-19 testing protocols carefully monitored for participants (temperature-taking, etc.)—50-100 cars full of four racing fans each to park inside and around the racing oval; alongside the empty Grandstand; or along the final stretch, where the tents used to be set up, to watch the races from the comfort and safety of their air-conditioned vehicles. Just like I suggested in my SPAC/parking lot opinion piece, cars would be charged a flat rate (say, $300) and SUVs or vans more (say, $500) because of the space they take up, and racing would still be able to be enjoyed every day for 40 days. It would be the hottest ticket in town.
Some might brush off these ideas as pie-in-sky. But let me remind you that we were all given just a few days to plan to all work from home, and we figured out a way of doing it. And we were given even less time to pivot to wearing face masks in public and socially distance from one another—even from the ones we love—and the majority of us complied. Instead of preemptively sounding the alarm that this is going to be the worst summer in Saratoga history, why not make it the best?