Saratoga Race Course, other New York horse racing tracks, to open for some fans

New York horse racing tracks, including Saratoga, to open to some fans

Unclear what fan capacity will be when the Saratoga Race Course opens

Photo of Wendy Liberatore

ALBANY – After weeks of  horse racing tracks being excluded from guidance for sports venue reopening, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that tracks can reopen at 20 percent seating capacity next week.

The change will take effect on April 22, the same day that the New York Racing Association's Belmont Park opens for its thoroughbred racing season.

“The New York Racing Association looks forward to welcoming fans back to Belmont Park this spring and to Saratoga Race Course this summer,” said NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke in a statement. “We thank Gov. Cuomo for the opportunity to host fans at our historic tracks for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

"NYRA has dearly missed the passion and excitement that fans bring to the sport of thoroughbred racing,” he continued. “Today’s announcement by the governor is one more indication that we are collectively moving toward a return to normalcy.”
Harness racing at Saratoga Casino and Hotel is already underway. Jeff Cantine, the president of Saratoga Horseperson’s Association, said he was pleased to hear that some fans will be allowed in, as not having race lovers at the track hurts the horse owners' bottom line and enthusiasm for the sport.

“I think it is awesome,” Cantine said. “It’s something the track can work with. I’m sure they will have to do some arranging and monitoring, but everyone will be happy.”

It is still unclear what the fan capacity will be when the Saratoga Race Course opens for its summer meet on Thursday, July 15. However, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner (D-Round Lake) says that she is hopeful the capacity can rise as more people get vaccinated and the positivity rate declines. Meanwhile, she said, the tracks have to learn more about the state guidelines.

“The devil is in the details,” Woerner said. “We don’t know yet if this is 20 percent capacity for reserved seating or 20 percent capacity for the backyard and along the fence, too. We need the written guidance. But 20 percent is a good place to start.”

O’Rourke said NYRA will also be reviewing the guidelines and protocols and that ticketing options will be announced once the guidance is more clear. He also said that NYRA will continue working on plans for Saratoga.

“While we are optimistic that capacity limits will increase in the coming months, we have a variety of options to address scenarios where demand is far greater than supply," O'Rourke said. "The specifics continue to evolve, but our goal in each scenario is to be able to accommodate as many fans as possible by offering purchasing options that are fair and equitable.”

State Sen. Daphne Jordan (R-Halfmoon) said the announcement is good news for the economy in Saratoga County.

"Horse racing is absolutely critical to Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County’s economy: our restaurants, hotels, tourism, and struggling small businesses that rely on the racing season," Jordan said. "After a racing season without spectators, it’s essential that fans be allowed to attend the 2021 racing season and that it be done safely and sensibly."

Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan is concerned that 20 percent won't be enough to bring the economy back. She too is hoping for a capacity increase in July.

"I understand there will be logistic issues to contend with, but 20 percent will have a negative impact on the city and our downtown businesses, and the economy generally," Madigan said. "The city had a 58 percent decrease in sales tax during our summer 2020 season. Outside New York City, our sales tax was the poorest in terms of performance overall. The city cannot afford a 2021 racing season that allows only 20 percent occupancy. ... If indoor event spaces can be open, surely we can have a lot more in terms of occupancy for an outdoor sporting venue."

Note: This story was updated on Friday morning to reflect the correct date for track's reopening to fans.