SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — On the final length of the homestretch, there’s no doubt that across the board, the 2021 summer meet at the Saratoga Race Course was a hands-down success. Fans were treated once again to 40 days of world-class thoroughbred racing. The Spa City hummed, whistled, and bustled and reclaimed its mantle of the summer place to be.
A pandemic, rainy July, and muggy August didn’t deter fans from turning out in droves. That passion translated into a new record all-sources handle, surpassing the 2019 tally of $705,343,949.
It was a memorable 153rd summer meet, from honoring essential workers on opening day weekend to Essential Quality’s win at the 152nd Runhappy Travers Stakes. That day saw a paid attendance of 44,507 spectators witness Essential Quality emerge victorious for reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox and jockey Luis Saez. The Travers made for essential viewing interest on FOX as well, pulling in the event’s largest audience since 2015 with 1,089,000 viewers, up 80% from last year.
New York Racing Association (NYRA) Senior Director of Communications Pat McKenna spoke to the passion of the fans, horsemen, and everyone in-between on making for a fun and entertaining campaign.
“Thanks to the energy, enthusiasm, and support of the best fans in horse racing, the 2021 summer meet at Saratoga Race Course has been a tremendous success,” McKenna remarked on the support.
“For the sixth consecutive year, we will surpass 1 million in paid attendance. For the second time in the last three years, the summer meet generated record-breaking wagering handle, which demonstrates the quality of the racing at Saratoga and the popularity of the sport in New York and across the country. This has been a summer reunion like never before, and we’re pleased that the return of fans has meant big business for downtown Saratoga Springs and the entire Capital Region,” McKenna continued.
“NYRA extends our gratitude to the fans who have ventured to Saratoga Race Course throughout the 40 day season, and to all those who have watched and wagered from home by viewing Saratoga Live on FOX Sports. We also thank the horsemen who work day in day out to care for these world-class athletes that make it all possible year after year,” McKenna added.
As McKenna noted, the track once again proved a boon to the Spa City’s local economy. Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President, Todd Shimkus, echoed the significance of that economic impact, with track goers milling about town before and after the horse races.
“Several years ago, the Saratoga County Industrial Development Association completed a study that determined that the economic impact of the Track was $240 million a year within the region. I’m willing to bet that we exceeded that figure this year,” Shimkus noted.
“Certainly, people who came spent money with NYRA setting a record for all-sources handle this year. I’ve said this often but we’ve really seen the roaring 20’s this summer with the crowds staying, dining, and shopping here. Our hospitality sector needed this boost after the struggles of the last year. Now with Live Nation extending its season into the fall and the City Center nearing a return to normal business operations, our hope is we’re going to see continued economic growth through the rest of 2021,” Shimkus added on the boosts provided by venues with fans back this summer.
From those making an annual pilgrimage to the regulars, everyone has their favorite day and moments at the track. On the final day of racing, some fans reflected on what the season meant to them.
For Patrick Morgan, of Utica, and his group, the final day was their first day, a tradition four years running.
“We usually come on the last day because we work all summer long and this is our end-of-the-summer celebration,” Morgan said.
“So we love coming up at the end. We have about 25 people, rent a bus and we come here and celebrate,” Morgan explained.
“We’re holding on to summer as long as we can,” Morgan added on the last hurrah of summer.
Regulars like Raymond, from Queens, noted he probably missed two days of the whole meet. He’s been making the trek to the track dating back to his Army days when he’d rent a cabin in Malta for $6 a night.
“It meant quite a bit,” Ramond said on being able to come back after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
“Last year was very bad. It’s hard, I like to sit out here and bet the horses. I’m not a big betting-at-home guy sitting at the TV. I like to be here, sit down with a couple of beers, that’s probably my favorite part of coming, I really enjoy it,” Raymond remarked on being back in the same spot he’s been sitting with friends for the past 15-20 years.
“It’s nice to sit here with people you know and bet horses. The only thing bad this year was the rain, the weather with a lot of horses off the turf,” Raymond noted.
“Otherwise it was a good meet. I’m looking forward to next year,” Raymond added on being back trackside.
July 2022 is only 10 months away.
The heat is on at Saratoga
"It's going to be uncomfortable," Dan Thompson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Albany said Wednesday. "There is no other way to say it."
A 10-race card is scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m. and officials will keep an eye on the rising temperatures, and, more importantly, the heat index.
According to heat management protocols established by Dr. Scott Palmer, the Equine Medical Director for the New York State Gaming Commission, if a heat index — a calculation that takes into consideration temperature, humidity and wind speed — reaches 105 "your racetrack veterinarian should contact the stewards or judges and track management to advise them of the presence of dangerous weather conditions."
Then there would be a discussion on whether or not to continue to race.
Thompson said on Wednesday that the National Weather Service forecasts the heat index will be 103 at post time and could get as high as 107 during the afternoon. An excessive heat warning is in effect from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday.
During Wednesday's 10-race card, the highest heat index was 103. The heat index is available at the on-track weather station and is updated on a regular basis.
The last time races were canceled at Saratoga because of oppressive heat was Saturday, July 20, 2019. The New York Racing Association made the announcement to call off that card two days prior.
Thursday's forecast, while hot, should not be as brutal as that day when the heat index was close to 110.
On Wednesday morning, trainers were also making sure to keep their horses hydrated. Fans were in front of every stall and trainers were taking extra caution.
Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse is used to hot weather as he has a training center in Ocala, Fla. Saffie Joseph Jr. spends most of the year at Gulfstream Park in Florida.
"This is cool weather for us," he said with a laugh Wednesday morning.
A sure sign that a horse is doing well in the heat is if he or she is sweating.
"The important thing is that they sweat properly," Joseph said. "If a horse is sweating, that is its cooling system. If the horse is not a good sweater, the heat is going to bug them. Once a horse sweats good, the heat is fine for them."
After races on Wednesday, horses were hosed off outside of the winner's circle before being walked back to their barns. There were no incidents.
Horses do their training in the mornings. Even though it was warm, it was not uncomfortable.
"I tend not to train them as hard or not as much," Casse said about the heat. "Most of (his) horses here, they would never have to train. They could just walk a week and run. They are ready."
Brad Cox, who has the Travers favorite, Essential Quality, in his barn, also monitors the weather. If it is supposed to be hot, he might send some horses out earlier. If he sees a horse that does not do well in hot weather, he will keep them in the barn. The horses he has in Saratoga are not new to heat exposure.
They spend a lot of the year in Kentucky where the temperatures often rise.
"It gets hotter in Kentucky," he said. "I think I'm like a horse. I prefer cooler weather."
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