What It’s Like Attending the Races During the Spectator-less Saratoga Race Course Season

On the same day that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo targeted Saratoga Race Course as an “attractive nuisance”—a regional destination that would likely lead to more outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus—the New York Racing Association (NYRA) was forced to make this year’s Saratoga summer meet fan-less. While the city’s done its best to make the best of a bad situation—Saratoga Living even offered up options to track diehards to save their Saratoga summers—it very much feels like a “lost season.” Despite there being a surprising number of staycation tourists out and about in Downtown Saratoga these days, the daily absence of fans holding up traffic along Union Ave is pretty alarming.

However, that hasn’t applied to all “fans.” If you’re a Thoroughbred owner with a New York State horseman’s license, have a horse racing on a day’s card and don’t have COVID-19 (obviously), you’ve likely been attending some of the races at Saratoga this summer. Saratogian Maggie Quinn is one of those people. Quinn, the director of operations and support, commercial agent channel, for telecom company Frontier Communications, came upon some disposable income a few years ago and decided to buy into some horses. (“I own a couple of hooves,” as she puts it.) She’s actually a member of a local Thoroughbred syndicate, Epona Racing Stable, based in Saratoga.

Quinn recently attended Alabama Day with an owner friend from Rochester—his horses were running, not hers—and because she had a New York racing license, the golden ticket (besides your health) that gets you through the track’s gates, she was able to tag along for the day. For all of the mega-fans who have been griping day in and day out about how crappy it is not being allowed inside the track this season, the experience, if you can even call it that, doesn’t sound all that enjoyable. In fact, it sounds downright eerie. Quinn told Saratoga Living about her day at the races, in the middle of a pandemic, in her own words.

What sort of health protocols did NYRA make you follow to get into Saratoga Race Course?
To be able to go in the barns as an owner, in the morning to watch the horses work out, you have to have your [New York racing] license and a COVID test. The COVID test has to be good and dated, at the most, seven days from when you go in. So, I went and got my COVID test, which had to get approved by NYRA, and I got a sticker on my license, which allowed me [access] to the track and breakfast.

Was that the COVID-19 nose or antibody test?
Just the nose test.

OK, so you present them your card with the sticker on it and you get into the track. Are you on the Oklahoma or main track side?
My trainer is actually over on the Oklahoma side, so I could go to the Oklahoma side if I wanted to. What I did do was I went over to the main track, and then we walked over to the backstretch. They’re very strict; you have to have your mask on at all times. When you drive in, you have to get a temperature check, show your credentials, horseman’s license, and they give you a wristband. We were able to walk freely around the inside of the track, but you had to have a mask on at all times.

Was it really eerie to be there without any fans in the stands?
For the races, it was surreal. There’s one small area that they’re allowing the owners to sit at—it’s over by Shake Shack and the Paddock Bar, and they also have, on the other side of the rail from the Paddock Bar, a grassy area where they’ve set up picnic tables, 10 feet apart, with umbrellas. So, you can either go sit by the Paddock in the Paddock tent, or sit where we sat, which is over by the picnic tables. They actually have the Paddock Bar open, which I was surprised about. They only have table service.

Swiss Skydiver, after winning the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. (Chris Rahayel)

You’re describing tables that are not directly in view of the track or the finish line. Were you able to actually watch the physical races happen in real time?
I was surprised that you could walk up to the track to watch the race. What I thought was the most surreal thing about it was that there really weren’t a lot of people there. The trainers are under the same regulations that the owners are. You couldn’t go up by the boxes, you couldn’t watch a race from up there if it was raining. Everybody was just kind of hanging around the rail. I sat there with Todd Pletcher for one race. Bill Mott was there, Steve Asmussen was down there with his son. They looked like the guys that bring the little coolers and find the corner [of the picnic area].

Since there’s really no chatter at all—no cheering, no nothing—at the track, was the live race a louder experience? Did you hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves coming down the stretch more clearly?
Yes, actually, you could. You could hear it better; you’re still down, but you’re at track level. You’re watching the screens more, [because] if you were up in the boxes you’d be able to see better. Yes, you could hear the horses coming a lot sooner.

And there’s no “Call to the Post”? 
They have the bell go off, they walk the horses in and the same things are happening [as during a fan-filled season], except the jockeys come out at the last possible moment. Everybody’s fully face-masked. You used to be able to walk behind the horses and then turn left before the track to go watch the race. None of that. There’s just one handler and the horse. Everybody else had to walk back through the Clubhouse to go to the rail to watch the race. It was just weird.

How long were you able to stay at the track? Was it an all-day affair, or did you have to leave after your friend’s horse ran? 
I was there for about two hours.

Did your friend’s horse win? 
No. As a matter of fact [chuckles], one of my favorite horses won, and it was one of Pletcher’s horses, who I was sitting next to when he won.

Did he show any emotion when it won? 
Not really.

Would you go back to the fan-less track if you had a chance?
Yeah, I would. If I had a horse running. So much of the track is the whole social atmosphere. Not so much [now]. But it was definitely different, and I would do it again.

Did you get the sense from the NYRA staff or the other horsemen in attendance that they think this is going to go on longer than just this season? 
Everybody’s just accepting that it is what it is, and we’re just thankful that we have the racing up here. And my understanding is that the handle is up—everybody’s wagering via phone apps.

Are people cautiously optimistic about next season? 
Yes. But there are rumors going around that they’re going to cancel Aqueduct this year. So, I don’t know if that means that they’re going to cancel Aqueduct and keep Belmont going longer, or if they’re just going to take off those four months. That’s just a horse owner’s rumor that’s going around.

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