By Bill Finley
When NYRA reached the halfway point of its 2019 Saratoga meet Wednesday, all-sources handle was $320,684,714, or 2.3 percent higher than the number posted after the 20th racing day a year earlier.
While that may seem like only a minor increase in handle, the number is more impressive than it may look on paper. For several reasons, comparing Saratoga 2019 vs. 2018 is like comparing pineapples to watermelons, but there is a key factor involved in those numbers that tells you just how well NYRA has broken out of the gate. Due to the heat, NYRA lost an entire Saturday card July 20. Saturday cards at Saratoga in July normally handle in the $23 million range. Had NYRA been able to run that card it would likely be up about 9.5 percent on the year at the midway point.
Saratoga also lost seven races on July 25 due to a thunderstorm and one jump race earlier in the meet. They’ve made up for it by adding extra races to some cards and ran only six fewer races in the first half of 2019 than they did in 2018. Still, there’s no making up for a $23 million handle day on a Saturday.
This is the first year that NYRA has gone to what basically amounts to a five-day-per-week, eight weeks of racing schedule. Officially, the change was made because NYRA needed to clear out of Belmont early to allow construction to begin on the new arena being built for the New York Islanders.
Likely, they’ve already seen enough. Eight weeks, five days is here to stay.
Employees, fans and horsemen will probably be worn out come closing day, Labor Day, and ready to leave quaint Saratoga for not so quaint Elmont, Long Island. Even in a place as special as Saratoga, eight weeks is a grind. But NYRA is so reliant on the revenue it brings in from Saratoga that it can’t turn away from a meet that looks like it has hit the magic number when it comes to maximizing profits.
And getting to the finish line of the meet has been made easier by the five-day schedule, and that has to be the No. 1 reason this meet is doing as well as it is.
No track, not even Saratoga, can make six days of racing every week work anymore. The quality of racing gets watered down, the field sizes shrink and everyone can use more than just one day a week off from the track.
The average field size has increased from 7.61 to 7.98. While that, a 4.9 percent increase, may not seem like a lot, every last horse that can be added to a card adds to total handle. Had they been running six days a week there’s little doubt field size would be down.
NYRA has also been able to run more turf races (85) this year as opposed to last (74). The difference is that 27 races came off the grass last year versus 20 this year.
Ironically, while NYRA’s off-track business has been booming, on-track handle is down significantly, off 11.8 percent from last year. Through the first half of the meet there had been a $7.16 million decline. That could be because of the early start of the meet, July 11. The 2018 meet began July 20. Only $3.08 million was bet on track on opening day this year versus $5.4 million the year before. Racing fans, even after all these years, still seem to have a hard time adjusting to July racing at a track that had traditionally run only during the month of August.
But should NYRA’s on-track numbers start to catch up to 2018 figures that should make the handle numbers look all that more impressive.
The days of four-week, 24-day meets at Saratoga are something from the distant past. That has caused the quality of racing to suffer somewhat. It would have been unheard of in the eighties for NYRA to card a $12,500 claimer or a $20,000 maiden claimer at Saratoga. But the Saratoga brand has apparently become so strong that bettors don’t seem to mind cheap races, as long as they consist of a large field.
With NYRA having created an “event” at Belmont, the Stars and Stripes Festival, the weekend before Saratoga opens and with Labor Day being the unofficial end of summer, there doesn’t appear to be any room for Saratoga to expand further. The 2019 meet appears to have set the stage for the future.