Saratoga Merchants Look Forward to Return of Fans



SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY–Precisely 52 weeks ago, King's Tavern co-owner Jason Fitch valiantly tried to be at least a little bit positive about the prospect of a racing season without spectators across Union Avenue at Saratoga Race Course.

Closed for three months by the COVID-19 lockdown, King's had reopened in mid-June at the partial-capacity limits of the time. While just being able to operate was better than nothing for Fitch and his brothers and partners, Adam and Patrick, he acknowledged it was going to be a difficult summer without the thousands of potential customers visiting the track for the upcoming 40 days.

“Whatever happens, we're definitely going to embrace it,” Fitch said. “It's still going to be Saratoga with the track and the horses still running.”

The Fitch brothers managed to get through the business-crushing stretch with King's and their Saratoga City Tavern and–like dozens of other local merchants–said they were mightily pleased that the track will be filled with fans again when the season gets underway on July 15.

“The mood, compared to last year, is different, 180 degrees,” Fitch said. “Definitely, everyone's excited. Beyond excited.”

When New York's vaccination rate reached 70% on June 15, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that restrictions were being lifted on most businesses in the state. The timing was ideal for the New York Racing Association's biggest meeting and the Capital-Saratoga region that is wedded to the commerce that the racing season at the Spa delivers.

“We're optimistic of what it is going to bring,” Fitch said. “Chatter is that it's going to be the busiest year we've ever had now, not just us, but the whole Saratoga city. So that being said, we're hoping for the best. We're not sure if it's going to be over-the-top busy, which we're hoping because after the last year of COVID and the shutdown and all that stuff, we need it for the bounce-back. It's going to be fun. As of right now, leading up to it, the vibe downtown on Caroline Street is, we're seeing Travers-sized crowds already.”

NYRA president David O'Rourke said that company officials are well aware of the thirst for the Saratoga season.

“It's unprecedented, the enthusiasm,” O'Rourke said. “It's always big, but it's just exponential this year.”

Dave Harmon, who opened his West Side Sports Bar & Grill on Congress Street in 2005, is predicting a blockbuster run in Saratoga. Harmon, with a deep background in photography for racing publications, is well-connected in the sport.

“This summer is going to be off the charts,” he said. “I think it's going to be like the Roaring Twenties,” drawing a comparison to the booming decade following World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

“There's so many people and whether it's Pennsylvania, downstate, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, these people haven't seen their friends for over a year, so where are they going to come?” Harmon said. “They're going to come to Saratoga. They missed all last year. They're going through withdrawal from that. What better place to go than Saratoga and that's what's going to happen.”

Sackatoga Stables' operating partner Jack Knowlton has lived and worked in Saratoga Springs for three decades. With a small number of his partners permitted on the grounds last summer, Knowlton accomplished his No. 1 goal at Saratoga, winning the GI Runhappy Travers S., with Tiz the Law (Constitution)'s decisive victory. Knowlton said business is already booming in his adopted hometown.

“The town has been in race mode for the last three, four weeks already,” he said. “All restaurants and hotels are full. It started before the track. People want to get out and do things. I think it's going to be a meet that is going to break every record in the book, for sure.”

The Fitch brothers have operated the five-story Saratoga City Tavern for 16 years. In 2014, they took over King's Tavern, which was only open during the racing season, and have operated it year-round. Last summer, routinely described as one unlike any other in Saratoga history, was especially difficult for people who own small businesses.

“We lost the eight weeks with the track last year,” Fitch said. “Yes, the horses ran, but there were no tourists, the extra influx of people. We were extremely lucky at King's that we have a very loyal, amazing regular customer clientele. They really supported us and without that we would not have made it through that winter. There's no way. We're extremely grateful to have those people who supported us. That was huge for us.”

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