Saratoga Race Course ready to get back to normal

Jul 14, 2021, 11:47 AM | Updated: Jul 15, 2021, 12:05 am

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) — Like just about everybody else around here, Jack Knowlton is stoked for opening day at Saratoga Race Course.

“It’s been a long time without being able to be at Saratoga with tens of thousands of people there, so we’re really excited,” Knowlton, operating manager of Sackatoga Stable, said Wednesday. “The town has been buzzing for the last month. It’s incredible the kind of pent-up demand that there is.”

A year after racing was conducted at Saratoga without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Racing Association’s summer meet at the oldest racetrack in the country begins Thursday, and full-capacity admission is allowed again for the 40-day meet. That means the venerable track, which opened during the Civil War in 1863, has a shot at attracting paid attendance of over a million again after its five-year streak was broken.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be able to welcome fans back … following a year in which we had no spectators and these races were run in front of empty grandstands,” NYRA communications director Patrick McKenna said. “There is a different kind of energy and enthusiasm around the opening of this meet. I think you can feel it in the air. It really signaled that we have turned the page on COVID here in New York by virtue of the fact that more than 70% of adults are now vaccinated.”

Following the four-day opening weekend, racing will be conducted Wednesday through Sunday, with Mondays and Tuesdays dark until the finale on Labor Day.

The stakes schedule features 76 races worth $21.5 million in total purses. Highlights of the meet include the 152nd running of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 28 and three weeks before that the $1 million Whitney Stakes, which offers an automatic berth to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November at Del Mar. The meet also will include the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup and the $600,000 Flower Bowl, both previously run during the fall meet at Belmont Park.

Just the thought of that left Kika Barbariantz all smiles as she tidied up Bob & Adam Coglianese’s photo booth behind the grandstands on Wednesday. It’s been a long year.

“It feels great to be back. Last year was depressing,” said Barbariantz, a Bronx native who’s been coming to Saratoga since she was 11 years old and once was a hot walker for late Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens. “It’s nice to see familiar faces. Just to be at the racetrack, it’s incredible. I just missed being here. I knew this year was going to be special. It’s nice to see cars. It’s crowded. There’s a lot of traffic.”

Two years ago, the Saratoga meet set a record for all-sources betting handle at over $705 million, even though weather knocked out a full day of racing and half of another. Last year reflected the track’s allure — total handle was $702.5 million with an average daily handle of $17.5 million.

“What we think 2020 showed was that bettors respond to excellent, interesting and dynamic racing,” McKenna said. “To eclipse $700 million in handle for the second straight year in the absence of fans was important because what that money does is support horsemen, the small businesses that they’re running by and large. That was why it was important to come to Saratoga.”

It’s important for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who in May was barred by NYRA from racing at Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct after his Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a postrace drug test. A New York federal judge on Wednesday nullified Baffert’s suspension, finding that NYRA acted unconstitutionally by failing to let him adequately respond to claims made against him.

NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said in a statement the organization was reviewing the court’s decision to determine its legal options.

“Mr. Baffert’s actions and behavior can either elevate or damage the sport,” O’Rourke said. “We expect Mr. Baffert to exert appropriate controls over his operation.”

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Saratoga Race Course ready to get back to normal