If you’ve ever attended the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, you can appreciate the massive hole that was punched through the gut of horse racing on Saturday.
I’ve covered it twice, when Animal Kingdom won in 2011 and when Orb won in 2013.
One of the advantages of having a media credential at the Derby is that you get to accompany the walkover, the slow parade of Derby horses from the backstretch barns along the outside rail on the clubhouse turn toward the horse path to the paddock for saddling.
I jumped at the opportunity to do that in 2011, and felt like Russell Crowe the first time he enters the Roman Colosseum in “Gladiator.”
You can’t believe the wall of people.
Having been in this profession for a pretty long time, I can pinpoint several moments like that that are so astronomically bigger than yourself, and many of them are racing-related. Quick to mind are Rags to Riches outdueling Curlin to win the 2007 Belmont Stakes, and Rachel Alexandra beating older males in the Woodward in 2009, an incredible collective roar from the crowd sweeping down the track in both cases.
As you well know, Rachel’s Woodward happened at Saratoga Race Course. Maybe you were even there.
Maybe you won’t be there if something like that happens again this summer. Probably, you won’t. Maybe you’ll be thankful simply that it happened there, even if they wouldn’t let you through the gate, wouldn’t let you sprint to a picnic table, wouldn’t let you sip from the Big Red Spring, or put $2 on that horse with the pink silks and polka dots.
Comments by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday during his daily briefing sent off alarm bells for many of those who have a deep-seated stake in the Saratoga Thoroughbred meet, and I don’t blame them.
While the COVID-19 pandemic still looms over seemingly every waking moment of our lives, there has been enough progress against it that Cuomo’s New York PAUSE restrictions might begin a partial phase-out out on a regional basis when we reach the current extension to May 15.
In the meantime, Saratoga Springs and the county, who rely heavily on tourism, have felt a slow bleed of revenue sources. The Oklahoma Training Track remains closed, the popular August Fasig-Tipton yearling auctions have been moved to Kentucky in September and on Friday the Saratoga County Fair (July 21-26) was canceled for only the second time since 1841. It took the Civil War to stop it the first time.
Then Cuomo answered a question on Wednesday about big events like the Saratoga Race Course meet (scheduled to open on July 16) with doubt that it would be safe to let people on the grounds until we reach a state-wide reversal of the lockdown.
That leaves us with a four-horse field for the Spa Scenario Derby: 1. A meet with as many fans as they can get through the gates; 2. A meet with some sort of attendance cap; 3. A meet with no spectators allowed on the grounds; 4. And no meet at all.
I’m putting my money on the 3 horse. The 1 was an easy toss, the 2 would need a perfect trip and the 4 has a lot of handicappers worried, but seems like a long shot that I’ll bet against with confidence.
Again, I don’t blame people for being scared of the 4, but I’m still trying to find anywhere in Cuomo’s Spa comments where he was specifically referring to canceling the actual running of races at Saratoga. Now, if you want to extrapolate from these crowd-related comments that a governor who has been indifferent toward horse racing since forever is going to shut the whole thing down entirely, well, you’re welcome to it.
There remains some luxury of time for the New York Racing Association, which much prefers to run at Saratoga, even with no fans on the grounds, as opposed to keeping its live cards at Belmont Park through the summer and fall. NYRA is motivated by the prospect of substantially higher betting handle at Saratoga than at Belmont, which has the added appeal of buttressing the horsemen’s economic bottom line because NYRA says it could then offer higher purses.
Job one for NYRA is getting Belmont, scheduled to begin last Sunday, up and running again, which needs the go-ahead from the state.
Although the New York City area has been hit harder by the pandemic than anywhere in the country, racing is a rarity in the sports world in that some live action has continued, at tracks like Gulfstream Park in Florida and Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Santa Anita Park and California horsemen have been trying to get back to live racing (the track has written a condition book for mid-May), and Churchill Downs will start up again on May 16.
Racing is do-able.
Not long after Cuomo’s comments on Wednesday, NYRA issued a statement that it has detailed plans for running safely at Belmont, which could also be incorporated at Saratoga.
I’ll leave it to people with a better imagination than I have to figure out some scenario in which NYRA could let fans on the grounds at Saratoga with an attendance cap.
It’s not the number that’s a problem. They started capping events like Belmont Stake Day and Travers Day a few years ago. But there was a vastly different reason behind those moves.
If social distancing is still a thing two months from now — and why wouldn’t it be? — I find it difficult to believe that you could pull that off at Saratoga. People are still working on the six-foot ballet through the moving maze that is the supermarket produce department. Anyway, that was Cuomo’s primary issue on Wednesday, and betting on the 2 horse would require the confidence that he might change his mind. I have no such confidence.
As much as it seems like a major hassle to relocate the horse population and all the various professional staff those horses require from Belmont to Saratoga for a meet with potentially no fans, NYRA wants to run at Saratoga. The city and county want racing there, fans or not.
The bet here is that they get that chance.
Just for old time’s sake, I pulled up the YouTube replay of Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward, and, yep, the chill still runs up your spine when Tom Durkin bellows, “Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters here at the Spa!”
She had a little help with those rafters, from 31,000 people.
If some horse is in a position to do that again this summer, they’ll be on their own.
This pandemic will be bigger than everybody for a long time.