Spending a summer day at Saratoga Race Course is an experience many, myself included, believe is sheer magic—and one that is to be repeated as many times as possible during the short racing season.
Except for last year.
Tom Law calls attending last summer’s famously fan-less season “really beyond belief.” The native Saratogian and managing editor of The Saratoga Special Thoroughbred racing newspaper was one of the few reporters given access to the track grounds last season, along with limited New York Racing Association (NYRA) personnel and PPE-ed owners, trainers and jockeys. “It was pretty normal in the morning training hours for the workouts,” he says. “But the afternoons were just bizarre, surreal.”
Now, a year later, after such a long period of uncertainty and rumor, Saratoga racing is ready for its big comeback moment. It’s sure to be “surreal,” as Law put it, but in reverse. Will things simply tip back to the way they were, or should fans expect noticeable transformation amid the hoopla?
In terms of the overall track experience, look for a complete about-face from last year. By July 15 Opening Day, Saratogians will be a month into celebrating New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that the State had reached its 70 percent vaccination threshold—basically, what it needed to fully reopen the State. NYRA wasted no time before announcing that Saratoga Race Course would reopen at 100 percent capacity and drop all COVID protocols, including fans having to prove that they had been fully vaccinated. NYRA did, however, note that unvaccinated fans should continue masking while on the grounds of the track, but it’s unclear how that will be enforced, especially after most places around town stopped even asking vaccination status and giving the CDC spiel within days of the restriction lift. In short, as soon as July 15 rolls around, you’ll once again witness happy throngs of the Saratoga faithful, itching to get through the turnstiles in time for post time, with standing-room-only capacity at race time in the Clubhouse, Grandstand, backyard and at the rail. There are even three new hospitality areas at the track for eager returning fans to hit up: Spa Verandas, Tailgate at the Turn and an expanded section of The Stretch.
That said, it will be difficult to forget last season’s height of eeriness: watching Saratoga favorite Tiz the Law win the Travers Stakes without the thundering roar of the crowd reverberating through the ancient Grandstand as he pulled away in the stretch. But not everything that happened during COVID was a pockmark on Saratoga’s racing experience—and we’ve got the numbers to prove it. Enter, mobile betting apps. After fans were forced last year to hit up their smartphone to key in bets, it’s looking like they’ll remain loyal to this fast style of wagering, which is good news for the sport’s economy. Apps such as NYRA Bets, XpressBet, TwinSpires and DRF Bets were already popular options in pre-pandemic times of course, but 2020 gave them a long-needed oomph forward. Expect that to continue—maybe, in some cases, to the detriment of live tellers (some bettors may not want to give up touch-free all that easily).
Even as fans nationwide have started making their way back to the track, the majority of betting handle has continued to be funneled through mobile platforms, further advancing racing’s uncharacteristically tech-forward trend. This year’s trio of Triple Crown legs was a great example. Although there were only 11,238 fans in attendance at the 2021 Belmont Stakes because of COVID guidelines, the day’s 13-race card generated all-sources handle of a whopping $112.7 million, a record for a year without a Triple Crown winner. (At the time of the Saratoga announcement in mid-June, NYRA had also fully reopened Belmont Park.) The Kentucky Derby, which had 51,838 fans at Churchill Downs (the race usually draws more than 150,000), had all-sources handle of $233 million, near pre-pandemic standards. Of that, TwinSpires, which is Churchill’s official online wagering partner, handled $62.7 million, a record for the platform. And overall handle on the 14-race Preakness Stakes card also set a record, at $113.4 million, the first time total handle on the card exceeded $100 million, up 13.6 percent from the previous full-card record of $99.8 million in 2019. Preakness attendance, which usually exceeds 120,000, was capped at just 10,000 this year.
But will Saratoga, known for its rabid, in-person fanbase, follow that national trend? The betting apps are expected to remain popular, and NYRA will continue to deliver a first-class TV broadcasting product for those who don’t end up attending this year’s meet in person. But fans are expected to return to Saratoga in droves, enjoying the fortuitous timing of the State’s full reopening following the pandemic, and thus zero fan restrictions versus this year’s Triple Crown races. “I did consider myself fortunate to have the access I did last year, but I hope to never see Saratoga like that ever again,” Law says of having literally stared into the Saratoga void. “The racing was great and all but, predictably, it lacked the energy Saratoga has always provided. I covered all the Triple Crown races this spring, and the thing just about everyone asked me about was how things were going to be at Saratoga this summer. There’s a great buzz about Saratoga, and people seem eager to get to the track and support it. I can’t wait.”