SBJ/20090727/This Week's News

Saratoga expects to keep fields, seats filled

New York Racing Association CEO Charles Hayward thinks Saratoga, a bastion of horse racing tradition that’s also America’s richest meet, will avoid the 10 percent decline in betting that the industry has suffered in 2009.

The total amount of money wagered on horse races in the U.S. — called handle — was $6.503 billion in the first six months of 2009, a decrease of 10.5 percent from the same period in 2008, according to Equibase, an industry database. In June, handle was $993 million, a decrease of 16.9 percent.

“I think our handle will be down, but it will only be down by about 5 percent,” Hayward said last week of Saratoga’s 36-day race meet, which opens Wednesday.

America’s oldest sporting venue, Saratoga Race Course, which opened in 1863, holds more Grade I races and has the highest purse money of any track in the country. The meet historically has drawn horse owners, breeders and jockeys from around the country to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and its sprawling grounds and picnic areas draw thousands more fans than there are reserved seats.

Racing fans flock to 146-year-old Saratoga
every August for top-level races and horses.

“I think we can seat somewhere around 9,000 or 10,000 people, and our average [daily] attendance is about 25,000,” Hayward said.

As of earlier this month, sales for reserved seating in the grandstand, clubhouse and box seats were actually up from the same time last year, by about 5 percent, Hayward said. At the same time, group sales and luxury suite sales are about 5 percent softer, Hayward said, adding that was not surprising as corporations are cutting back.

Saratoga has a new sponsor this year, thoroughbred auction firm Fasig-Tipton, which will sponsor a weekend of racing Aug. 8-9 to promote the company’s annual sale of thoroughbred yearlings Aug. 10-11. Fasig-Tipton will have signs on the track and naming rights to a race.

Three sponsors, private jet company NetJets and thoroughbred breeding farms Shadwell and Three Chimneys, are returning to sponsor Saratoga’s most prestigious races, the NetJets King Bishop, the Shadwell Travers Stakes and the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes.

Sponsorship revenue at NYRA — which operates two other racetracks, Aqueduct and Belmont Park, along with Saratoga — is down from about $3.75 million last year to $3 million this year, Hayward said, but that is mainly due to the lack of a potential Triple Crown winner at the Belmont Stakes in June. Among the sponsors that did not return after last year, when Big Brown was contending for a Triple Crown, are UPS, Prudential and Dairy Queen, Hayward said.

But as Saratoga opens this week, it will not have the same horse shortage problem that other tracks across the country have encountered this year.

Several tracks, including Del Mar, the premier California summer meet, are suffering from a shortage of horses and are cutting back race days. Del Mar is running five days a week, instead of six. But Saratoga is running its usual six-day Wednesday-through-Monday schedule, ending Labor Day.

Every year, Saratoga’s 1,800 horse stalls cannot accommodate the demand from horse owners who want to race there, Hayward said. But this year, there was a record number of applications for stalls, about 3,400, up from about 3,000 last year.

“I think Saratoga is a little bit more recession-proof because it is a great destination,” Hayward said. “I just think the racing is so good.”

Joe Dalton, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said that Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird was already on the grounds at Saratoga, and that there was talk Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra would run at the meet.

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