SARATOGA SPRINGS Unprecedented publicity for events celebrating racing in Saratoga Springs this summer hasn’t translated into a significant increase in business for most downtown retailers and restaurants or attendance in July at the Saratoga Race Course.
Attendance for the 11 days of racing in July was down a little more than 5 percent and during that period Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus said there wasn’t an uptick in business downtown compared to last year. Neither decrease has been obvious, as there were still more than 206,000 paid admissions to the track in July and parking in downtown Saratoga Springs hasn’t become any easier.
On the plus side, though, gambling across the country on Saratoga’s races was up in July and lodging figures for the county are very positive, said Saratoga Convention & Tourism Bureau President Todd Garofano.
The decrease in attendance at the track started on opening day, with only 21,935 paid admissions compared to 25,676 last year, which most blame on a forecast of temperatures around 100 degrees.
New York Racing Association CEO Chris Kay said it's too early in the meet to judge its success by these numbers. Pointing to his background at Toys R Us, he noted that weather might ruin some shopping days in the holiday shopping season, but by Christmas everything tended to even out.
“I think it’s much more instructive to look at the end of the meet to determine how we did,” Kay said.
This sentiment was echoed by Shimkus, who said downtown businesses weren’t off so much that they can’t make it up in the remaining day of the meet. He added that Saratoga Springs will benefit from an expanded summer season, which usually ends at Labor Day but will likely stretch out to late September because of the Farm Aid festival scheduled for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Kay also noted the increase in gambling on Saratoga thoroughbred races, which grew by more than $2 million during the first 11 days compared to last year, with a total of about $158.7 million. At the same time, though, gambling at the track was down almost six percent compared to the same period last year.
Weather is a factor
Shimkus said track attendance reflected the way people’s last-minute decisions are impacted by the weather. He blamed the poor first two days of attendance on bad weather projections and said the first Sunday’s attendance, which was up 10 percent from last year, was the beneficiary of predictions for a nice day.
“The only thing we can’t control locally is the weather,” Shimkus lamented.
Regarding the comparative lack of foot traffic, he said, “People just didn’t want to walk around downtown.”
Garofano said the weather didn’t impact local lodging figures, which were exceptional for the month of July, based on anecdotal reporting to his office. He said firm numbers for the month will be finalized in the middle of August.
“Weather might deter locals [from coming to the track], but folks from downstate, New Jersey and Connecticut who have made plans to come, are still going to come up,” Garofano said.
Groups, events helped
Part of the success he credited to group bookings, particularly sports tournaments in early July, and large conferences.
Shimkus said the chamber’s survey of county hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds showed that revenue per available room was up in the start of summer compared to last year. He said bookings look good for August.
Part of the strong July numbers have to be attributed to all the other attractions in Saratoga County, including the city center, Saratoga Casino & Raceway, county fair and SPAC. In particular, Shimkus said the ability of SPAC to draw crowds to the county before and after the Saratoga racing meet couldn’t be understated.
Whether any of this data can be used to assess the success of the Saratoga 150 committee, which organized all the events and fanfare to celebrate the 150th year since racing started in Saratoga Springs, is unclear. Shimkus said a recent meeting of the committee focused on how difficult it is to judge whether their efforts have resulted in short-term or long-term success.
“At some point that has to all kick in,” he said, suggesting that the first weekend in August, which included the official 150th birthday celebrations, might later appear to be that point.
The Floral Fete and festivities at the track on Saturday, which were the biggest events of the Saratoga 150 celebrations, may have started the reversal of trends from the previous month. Downtwn Saratoga Springs was filled with more than 30,000 people for the Floral Fete, wildly exceeding expectations, and attendance at the track on Saturday was up about 7 percent compared to the same day last year.