In an Unusual Year, Some Things Stay the Same at Saratoga


Saratoga | Sarah Andrew


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Even without spectators on the grounds, the 152nd summer of racing in Saratoga produced a total betting handle of $702.5 million that was remarkably close to last year's record figure of $705.3 million.

The daily average handle for the 40-day meet in 2020 was $17.6 million and the daily average handle for the weather-shortened 39-day meet in 2019 was $18.1 million.

The season concluded Monday as quietly as it began July 16, with a program conducted without fans, in compliance with New York State's COVID-19 protocols for sporting events. Though the atmosphere was unlike any previous year, some things did not change: there was enthusiastic wagering support for the Saratoga product, Todd Pletcher extended his record with a 14th training title, and Irad Ortiz, Jr. nipped his brother Jose for the riding crown, 59-58. Irad Ortiz missed three days of the meet with an arm injury from a gate mishap. It was the sixth-straight year that an Ortiz was the Saratoga champ.

By the time New York permitted racing to resume at Belmont Park June 3, New York Racing Association officials had decided that it made more business sense to run at Saratoga, quite possibly without fans, than to stay in metropolitan New York for the summer. NYRA CEO and president David O'Rourke said the 2020 meet at Saratoga was a success on two levels: operating safely with no Covid-19 positives and the strong handle.

“In terms of the numbers, everyone has been very focused on the handle and the numbers have come in higher than we forecasted,” he said. “Slightly. Maybe about 5%. That's good because it allows us to maintain the continuity of the racing. There was absolutely no clarity on when or if casinos would open and on what time line. Now that they have announced that they will be open in September, hopefully that can relieve a little bit of pressure as you get through the winter. For us, handle generation, obviously, is seasonal. We're at the high point right now and with those extra funds, it will help us keep that continuity through next winter. That's a relief.”

Despite the tote success, O'Rourke said having to operate without spectators cost NYRA approximately $15 million in the profit it makes at Saratoga selling seating, food and beverages.

O'Rourke offered “surreal” as the first way to describe the season without fans at America's most popular racetrack.

“It was actually a beautiful summer up here,” he said. “It was like operating a racetrack in some sort of Twilight Zone science fiction movie where there is nobody around, but if you looked at it on television, you really sort of can't tell until you get to the winner's circle.”

O'Rourke said that running without fans felt like it was some sort of practice session.

“Now that it's over, it's kind of just a bizarre year,” he said. “Luckily, we've had the television platform, so it was us being inside the bubble in a lot of ways. At times we would sit upstairs and just focus on the TV aspect of it and say, 'How is everyone else really seeing what's going on?' The media coverage has been great and it's important. It's really the only way that people are being able to connect with us. But when you watch it and experience it on television, it's still Saratoga. When you look at in the Form, it's still Saratoga. The racing has been really good.”

Sackatoga Stable's Tiz the Law (Constitution) romped to victory in Saratoga's marquee race, the GI Runhappy Travers S. Aug. 8. He was second to Authentic (Into Mischief) as the favorite in the GI Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs. Peter Callahan's Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil) was an easy winner of the GI Alabama S. Aug. 15 and she ended second in the GI Kentucky Oaks Sept. 4. For the second year in a row, Bob Baffert won the GI Whitney S., this time with Improbable (City Zip).

O'Rourke said NYRA's decision a few years ago to invest in its advance deposit wagering app, NYRA Bets, and the move to daily national television coverage on Fox paid off in a big way when all betting had to be done off track. He said being on a sports channel when racing was the only live sport in America helped expand the customer base in June and carried into Saratoga.

“Maybe there is a slight silver lining in that the pandemic kind of forced a leap-frog effect in terms of people betting on their phones and watching us on television,” he said. “We saw [the growth in interest in ADW apps] coming and that's why we invested pretty heavily with Fox and pushed toward that platform with NYRA Bets. Because nobody could come to the live track, I think it has accelerated that channel shift. It will be interesting next year when we are here and there are 25,000 people, are people still engaging, at least on the wagering side, on their phone?”

Both the training and jockey titles were decided on the final day of the season. Pletcher, 53, carried a five-win advantage over two-time defending champ Chad Brown into the 14-race card on Labor Day. Brown cut the lead with a victory, but Pletcher, who won his first Saratoga title in 1998, prevailed, earning the H. Allen Jerkens Award with 31 wins.

“It feels great. It's very rewarding for the whole team,” Pletcher said. “A lot of people put a lot of hard work into it. It's very satisfying.”

Pletcher said the emergence of his younger horses–he won with four 2-year-olds–helped him secure the title. The Pletcher stable won four stakes: the GI Fourstardave H. with Halladay (War Front); the Alydar S. with Spinoff (Hard Spun); the Summer Colony S. with Nonna Madeline (Candy Ride {Arg}); and the Birdstone S. with Moretti (Medaglia d'Oro).

Though he has won titles at other tracks, Pletcher said that finishing on top at the end of the competitive Saratoga season is very gratifying.

“I think it's always more special here,” Pletcher said. “I've always said that Angel Cordero is the one that made it mean something. He always fought really hard. He's been texting me the last couple of days. He won 14 and so it was kind of cool to tie him.”

Cordero, 77, presented the award that honors his dominance at Saratoga to Irad Ortiz in the winner's circle after the final race. Moments later he embraced the Ortiz brothers, who had entered the day tied at 57 wins.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, NYRA officials considered staying downstate this summer. However, O'Rourke said that the turf courses at Belmont Park could not have handled two more months of competition and NYRA likely would have had to go to Aqueduct for a while. A better option, he said, was to commit to open the Oklahoma training track in Saratoga Springs June 4 and follow up about six weeks later with the racing season. Just before the season started, NYRA reacted to Covid-19 positives with jockeys at other tracks by locking down the riding colony. It proved to be a good move.

“The thing about this year, and everyone that has gone through a business, is that you don't really have a playbook,” O'Rourke said. “I don't want to say you are making it up, you're just using the facts you have in front of you and trying to make educated guesses and trying to stay on the conservative side. Sometimes there is a little bit of luck involved if you get it right or not. So, all be told, it worked out.”

O'Rourke said that when the decision was made in late May to race at Saratoga, he thought there was an 80% probability that some spectators would be allowed into the track during the season. At that point, New York was making progress controlling the pandemic.

“We thought, 'We'll get through this and by the end of June everything will start to calm down,'” he said. “Then it seemed to turn pretty quick. We asked for fans–we didn't have high expectations–and the state made the right call, obviously, given where New York is at now.”

As for 2021, O'Rourke said it's too early to deal with what-ifs questions about protocols and limits on attendance.

“It's something you don't even want to think about,” he said. “We want to think about opening up next year with a record crowd on opening day, but if we have to adapt, we will.”

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