Summer Of Survival: Saratoga Businesses Brace For Horse Racing Season Without Fans

by | 05.23.2020 | 10:46am
Businesses in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are facing a huge loss of income if the summer race meeting is conducted without fans

Nothing can be more disturbing for a real estate agent than the sound of silence.

At a time of year when veteran realtor Scott Varley is accustomed to receiving a steady stream of inquiries about lodging in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he has far too much unrented space as the prospect of a summer race meet without fans at Saratoga Race Course looms.

“I haven't had a request for a track rental since Corona hit,” said Varley, referring to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York.

Even as areas outside the New York City epicenter slowly re-open for business with safety precautions, Saratoga Springs already is feeling the pain of what life will be like if an iconic track that drew 1,056,053 fans last summer remains eerily silent beyond the thundering hooves of competing Thoroughbreds.

“It breaks my heart, it really does, as someone who is deeply rooted and invested in the community,” Varley said.

Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, described hotel reservations as being at a “standstill” with a series of major events already canceled.

Fasig-Tipton, which typically holds The Saratoga Sale and the New York-bred Select Yearling Sale in early August, shifted those high-profile auctions to Kentucky and they will follow the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. The National Museum of Racing postponed Hall of Fame induction ceremonies until August of 2021. Major concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center have been scrapped.

Belmont Park is scheduled to open without spectators on June 3. It is expected to host the Belmont Stakes under those conditions at a mile and an eighth as the opening leg of the Triple Crown on June 20. It remains unclear whether a limited number of fans might be accommodated at Saratoga Race Course during a prestigious 40-day meet set to run from July 16 through Labor Day.

When spokesman Pat McKenna was asked if the New York Racing Association is at least entertaining such a scenario, he responded, “NYRA has prepared plans that address any number of scenarios in this rapidly-evolving situation. However, we will be operating under the strict guidelines provided by public health professionals and our elected officials here in New York State.”

Jack Knowlton is a longtime Saratoga Springs resident who campaigns highly-regarded 3-year-old Tiz the Law as Sackatoga Stable's managing partner. He worries that a fan-free meet might represent the final blow for some of the many small businesses that provide the city's enduring charm.

“If Saratoga runs without fans, it's going to be devastating to businesses in Saratoga, particularly restaurants, bars, hotels and the shops that are downtown. It's going to be a huge loss of business income,” Knowlton said. “It really is a pretty scary thought, what it is going to do to this town if there is no racing with fans.”

Ed Fazzone, owner of popular seafood restaurant Eddie F's, deals with that “scary thought” even as he begins work daily at 5 a.m. to focus on what is a takeout-only business for now.

“You're not going to have fans coming from all over the country and outside the country to spend time at Saratoga,” said Fazzone. “Not only for my business but for hotels and everybody downtown, the little shops down there, the restaurants and bars, it's going to cripple the economy.”

The roots of PJ's BAR-B-QSA can be traced to the garage of P.J. Davis and his wife, Carolyn, where they started a modest catering business that steadily grew into a must-visit destination for many racegoers.

“Especially July and August, those are the months that tide you over for the winter months,” Carolyn said.

P.J. noted that the demand for takeout continues to be robust. “We're just grateful for the business we've been doing and that we're going to be able to survive this,” he said. “I know of fellow restaurateurs who are not going to be able to survive.”

According to Shimkus, Saratoga's meet has an annual economic impact of $237 million on the Capital Region. It provides 2,600 seasonal jobs, many filled either by students saving for college or by senior citizens in urgent need of extra income.

Shimkus holds out hope that something can be arranged to safely accommodate a relatively small number of fans. The venue features a backyard area filled with picnic tables in addition to large grandstand and clubhouse sections that normally contribute to a capacity of 50,000.

“We look at the fact that New York State and Connecticut and New Jersey are opening beaches and there are ways to social distance at the beach that could be replicated at the race course,” Shimkus said. “But again, the focus has to be on health and safety. And we don't have to make any of these decisions today.”

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was asked during his daily coronavirus press briefing on May 20 to provide an update about permitting fans at Saratoga Race Course, he replied, “There is no update. Watch the numbers, watch the data, watch the infection rate and then you will know.”

Gov. Cuomo has been criticized for locking down New York well after California and for a March 25 directive that required nursing homes to re-admit COVID-19 patients into a vulnerable population even though the Jacob K. Javits Center and a Navy ship with 1,000 beds were operating far under capacity. Cuomo reacted to the huge loss of life at a significant number of nursing homes by amending his approach on May 10. Now, hospitals are no longer allowed to release patients to nursing homes until they test negative for the virus.

Gov. Cuomo has been totally focused on data moving forward. No one can anticipate whether recent positive trends will continue. As much as public officials work to promote safety, they cannot help but be aware of the staggering economic price being paid, especially in tourist-dependent cities such as Saratoga Springs.

“No doubt, this is going to be a different summer. We're not going to attract a million people to the race course this summer,” Shimkus said. “But, at this point, whatever we might be able to do safely would be better than not.”

Terry Finley, another Saratoga resident who heads West Point Thoroughbreds, remains confident about the future.

“The magic of Saratoga is not going to go away because we've had a rough six months or nine months. It's not going to steal the thunder of Saratoga,” Finley said. “It's a matter of what they have to do as individuals and owners of business to get to the other side of this.”

He is betting the city will be as resilient as the horseplayers who ventured there through the generations.

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