By Mike Kane
Travelers along Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs this week saw an unusual amount of mid-winter activity in the main parking lot at Saratoga Race Course–33 trees of the 40 trees being removed.
Cutting 82% of the trees from the lot–all of which were judged to be at some type of risk– is part of the New York Racing Association's Backstretch Tree Management Plan. In the second phase of the program, scheduled to be completed before the start of the 2016 season in July, four times as many healthy, young trees as the ones taken down will be planted on the grounds of the historic facility.
The removal of the trees from one of the more visible sections of the track grounds–where NYRA now stores picnic tables covered in blue tarps in the off-season–caught the attention of passersby, including Saratoga Springs Mayor Joann Yepsen, who did not know that the project was underway. Saratoga Race Course is part of a national historic district in the city.
Many Saratogians and racing fans are very protective of Saratoga Race Course and concerned about changes at the nation's oldest sporting venue. A year ago, a half-dozen trees were taken down behind the grandstand to make room for the Red Jacket Hall of Fame building, a pet project of NYRA president Chris Kay. The trade of the trees, which likely had been part of the Saratoga landscape for a century or more, for a structure to house a newly created hall of fame, was criticized by many unhappy with decisions being made by Kay and his administration.
The Backstretch Tree Management Plan has been taking shape for a few years. In September 2014, the LA Group, a landscape architecture and engineering firm in Saratoga Springs, delivered a 43-page document to NYRA that assessed the condition of the trees on more than 250 acres of the backstretch sections and the parking lot. The survey identified 22 high-risk trees that should be removed immediately. It rated other trees as being moderate or low-risk, noted which trees should be pruned and laid out a planting plan for new trees. The LA Group document said that eight of the high-risk trees were in the parking area. That group consisted of seven Red Maples and one Norway Maple.
NYRA spokesman John Durso said Tuesday that NYRA decided to remove all the at-risk trees, approximately 10% of the some 2,000 trees on the backstretch, the Oklahoma training area, adjacent training barn areas like Sanford Court, and the Union Avenue parking lot portions of the state-owned property. While the project is part of capital improvements for Saratoga Race Course, Durso declined to provide a price tag for the work.
“The New York Racing Association is currently engaged in planting more than 800 new trees that will replace and supplement the less than 200 trees on the property that were recommended for removal by a team of expert Saratoga-based firms, including a licensed arborist, who identified trees that were either dead or posed a viable risk to people and property,” Durso said in a statement. “This tree management plan has been shared with the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, with whom the New York Racing Association has been in contact during this process.”
Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, said she was aware that the project would begin at some point this winter. She that at present there is no local oversight to changes being made to state-owned property.
“Historic landscape is an important resource and implementing a tree management plan will insure the long-term preservation of Saratoga Race Course,” she said.