SARATOGA SPRINGS The buzz and excitement of the Saratoga 150 celebrations didn’t translate to better attendance or more betting at this summer’s thoroughbred meet.
Admission figures for the 40-day meet at Saratoga Race Course dropped from 901,033 paid admissions last year to about 867,000 this year, nearly a 5 percent decrease, and all-sources wagering dipped from about $588.4 million last year to $586.6 million, a drop of less than 1 percent.
The meet did stand out, though, with a record amount of wagering on Travers Day, which also set a modern attendance record, as well as thousands filling the grandstand for a concert before the meet. Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus also noted the exemplary customer service provided by this year’s friendly staff, who also wore name tags this year to be more accessible.
“I really appreciated the focus this summer on customer service,” he said. “I think that will entice people who came this summer to come back next summer.”
The new tone was an obvious fingerprint of New York Racing Association President and CEO Chris Kay, a former consultant to Universal Parks & Resorts in Florida who took over NYRA earlier this year. Kay said the emphasis on a positive guest experience would be heading downstate with the fall racing meet at Belmont Park and the winter meet at Aqueduct Race Track.
He said the most encouraging thing about the meet was the quality of racing, which commanded about one-third of all of the gambling dollars on thoroughbred racing in the United States during the meet.
“This is the finest race meet in the country,” Kay said.
All of the accumulated data from this meet, including when people headed for the exits, will be analyzed for a better meet next year, he said. One change Kay wants is improved quality and consistency of the sound system.
It’s not clear what caused the drop in admissions, which was also just below the 39-day meet figure for 2011, but it’s likely this year’s giveaways didn’t help, as paid admissions decreased on each giveaway day.
Aside from Travers Day, which attracted more than 47,000 people, one of the meet’s biggest days was on Aug. 3, Whitney Day, the official celebration of racing’s 150th anniversary in Saratoga. Promotions for the day, which saw a 7 percent increase in paid admissions, included the first of five $15,000 bets during the meet sponsored by Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, as well as a poster giveaway and a cake-cutting celebration.
NYRA Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Rodnell Workman said his office will evaluate the different promotions and see what can be improved. He argued, though, that the promotions had varying degrees of success.
“Our trading card program started slow, but we made a few adjustments mid-meet, and demand [and] interest has grown steadily in the last few weeks,” he said.
The biggest outreach to new fans this summer was the concert by Disney Channel television star Zendaya before the meet, which Workman said was specifically scheduled to support Saratoga 150. Another concert isn’t set yet, but he noted that the success of that concert demonstrated that NYRA can do something like that in Saratoga.
Off the track, Shimkus said hotel occupancy and restaurant and retail sales were generally positive during the meet.
“I think overall you’re going to see an uptick in Saratoga Springs and the county,” he said.
Shimkus said the meet finished well for businesses, despite a performance in July that wasn’t what retailers were hoping for.
“They had a pretty good August,” he added.
One of the biggest changes this year was the debut of the Whitney Viewing Stand at the Oklahoma Training Track, which was open to the public starting Aug. 3. This was a popular weekend attraction, but NYRA officials are still in the process of determining whether it and the training track will be open to the public before next year’s meet.
One of the behind-the-scenes changes this summer was the opening of two new dormitories for backstretch workers.
“The backstretch workers loved the new dorms,” said Hendrickson, a special adviser to NYRA’s board. “I know Gov. Cuomo and NYRA believe better housing for the workers should be a top priority,”
It was previously announced that NYRA hopes to add 10 more dormitories next year.
Hendrickson also said this year’s backstretch appreciation program was a huge success.
“This program has brought the community closer to the backstretch workers and the backstretch workers closer to us,” he said.
Additional information about the economic impact of this summer’s meet on Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County is expected to be released this afternoon.