New York Racing Association officials were looking forward to this year’s Saratoga Race Course season at Monday’s press conference in Colonie, but they were also keenly aware that the non-profit organization’s hold on the historic thoroughbred track was in jeopardy.
NYRA’s contract to operate Saratoga as well as Aqueduct and Belmont in New York City ends on Jan. 1, 2008, and president and CEO Charlie Hayward acknowledged it will likely need outside help to put together a successful bid.
`In order to raise the capital we need, we would have to partner with a for-profit entity ` a gaming or tote board company,` Hayward said.
NYRA contends that it owns the land that Saratoga, Aqueduct and Belmont sit on, while the state claims that it holds ownership, which is why it has put forth a request for proposals in advance of NYRA’s contract expiration date. Bids for the next contract will be accepted as early as the end of July.
`We don’t have a specific strategy in place,` said Hayward. `One of the things we’re dealing with is a tight time frame.`
`We all want to protect and preserve the Saratoga we know and love,` added NYRA vice president Bill Nader. `If a for-profit organization runs it, we might lose that.`
While that process continues, NYRA is focused on the six-week Saratoga season, that begins July 26. Several changes are in store, some of which won’t be noticeable to regular track patrons.
The most significant change is the addition of another full-time barn to NYRA’s security barn system ` which limits race-day contact with horses to trainers and stable employees ` and the ripple effect it creates. Barn 29 will now join barns 27 and 28 as race-day housing for horses, giving NYRA 82 permanent stalls.
`We didn’t do those (security barns) as well as we could have last year, and (the media) were quick to point that out and we were quick to remedy that,` said Hayward.
Adding a third barn takes away more precious stall space from the many trainers that want to bring their horses to Saratoga.
According to NYRA racing secretary P.J. Campo, the number of requests far exceeds the stall space at the track, even if security barns weren’t there.
`I get anywhere from 2,300 to 2,500 horses that want to be stabled here, and we only have 1,800 stalls,` said Campo, who is entering his second Saratoga season. `Luckily, our local horsemen are willing to share their stalls.`
Saratoga Gaming and Raceway ` located across Nelson Avenue from the track ` is also willing to share its stable space, and that in turn is giving the harness track an unprecedented simulcasting deal. NYRA will house thoroughbreds at the harness track’s barn 5, which has room for 47 horses, and the raceway will have live simulcasts of the races taking place across the street for the first time.
`We’re good neighbors, and we learned, I think, a really good lesson when the VLTs (video lottery terminals) opened up (at the raceway),` said Nader. `We’re not going to lose anything because people are not going to give up the live (racing) experience.`
Another significant change involves the stakes races schedule at Saratoga. NYRA has moved the Grade 1 Woodward Handicap from its fall Belmont schedule to the final Saturday of its Saratoga schedule Sept. 2. The Forego will be run the same day as the Woodward.
`It’s a pretty strong closing weekend,` said Campo.
NYRA also announced that one of Saratoga’s prominent stakes races, the Test, will be sponsored by Darley ` an international horse breeding and racing operation owned by Dubai ruler HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. It’s the first time a Saratoga stakes race has been sponsored by a company outside the United States.
`I think it’s a good deal,` said Nader. `They (Darley) do things in a first-class way, and I think we need to do more of that (race sponsorship).`
Purses will be up across the board at Saratoga. Claiming races will see a $1,000 increase, while allowance and maiden races receive a boost of anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000.
This year’s list of giveaways was also announced, as well as a way for track patrons to avoid the long lines associated with the promotions. Among the items that are offered this year are a Todd Pletcher bobble-head doll (July 27), a Saratoga baseball cap (July 30), a Saratoga T-shirt (Aug. 6), a Saratoga sports bag (Aug. 13), a Saratoga travel mug (Aug. 20) and a Saratoga stadium blanket (Sept. 3).
However, if patrons aren’t interested in any of the giveaways, they can enter the track through a special `express lane` that will be set up at the East Avenue gate. Vouchers for the promotional items will not be handed out in that line.“