SARATOGA SPRINGS — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Saturday granted approval for horse tracks in the state, including Saratoga Race Course, to open, as long as there are no fans present.
The announcement is welcome — and relatively good news — for both Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County, officials of which have said they would prefer to have summer racing without fans to having no racing at all because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Harness racing tracks, including the track at the Saratoga Casino Hotel, can resume racing on June 1. Other harness tracks that can re-open include Yonkers, Vernon, Tioga, Batavia, Monticello, Buffalo Raceway, and Finger Lakes Racetrack.
“There will be guidelines for the actual participants, but no crowds, no fans. But for the industry itself, for the televised viewers, that can still work,” Cuomo said.
Car racing will also be permitted at the renowned Watkins Glens International in the Finger Lakes, where a NASCAR event is scheduled for August. But again, no fans will be allowed. Cuomo said the re-openings are part of efforts to spur economic activity while not causing the virus to spread.
“Now we’re getting a little more nuanced in our analysis and starting to look for economic activities that we can start without crowds and gatherings — in this state we can do that with horse racing tracks and car racing at Watkins Glen and we’re going to do that starting June 1st,” he said during his daily coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Albany.
“What you want to do is increase economic activity as much as you can without causing a virus spike,” Cuomo said.
The decision resolves one of the major unknowns about what will be happening in Saratoga Springs this summer, even if it leaves many questions unanswered.
Assuming NYRA follows through, it will mean hundreds of backstretch workers, jockeys and trainers coming to Saratoga this summer, and housing and feeding them and the horses would support local businesses and horse farms in the surrounding region. Assemblyman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, had urged the governor to allow racing without fans for the economic benefits compared to having no racing.
“Great news for the horsemen and women in NYS!,” Woerner wrote on Twitter.
Officials with the New York Racing Association have been looking to resume thoroughbred racing, even if it’s without fans. The approval granted by Cuomo will allow NYRA to resume horse racing June 1 at Belmont, and clears the way for a full, if fanless, Saratoga Race Course meeting starting on July 16.
“This is a reasoned and responsible decision by Governor Cuomo that will enable horse racing to resume in a way that prioritizes health and safety while recognizing that NYRA is the cornerstone of an industry responsible for 19,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual economic impact,” said NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke.
“We look forward to the resumption of live racing at Belmont Park with all appropriate health and safety protocols in place to support the hundreds of small businesses, family-owned farms and thousands of hourly workers who form the backbone of thoroughbred racing in New York,” O’Rourke added. “NYRA has developed a comprehensive safety plan that builds on our experience of operating training safely and responsibly during the pandemic, and includes extensive protocols to keep our community safe.”
While NYRA has not had live racing since Aqueduct was closed in March in response to the pandemic, hundreds of horses and employees have remained on the grounds.
At Cuomo’s briefing, state Budget Director Robert Mujica said the thinking concerning horse racing is that most of the employees who care for the horses are already on-site at tracks, so racing the horses adds little risk. Races could still be televised, and betting on racing could still take place remotely.
As of Saturday, the Capital Region remained “on pause,” with daily hospitalizations and deaths per day in the eight counties still exceeding what the state says is acceptable to begin re-opening. Montgomery, Fulton and Schoharie counties, as part of the Mohawk Valley region, began the initial phase of re-opening on Friday.
Local counties continue to see new COVID-19 cases diagnosed, with only Schoharie County seeing no new cases confirmed on Friday. In the region, total cases by county are now: Albany, 1,572; Schenectady, 613; Rensselaer, 438; Saratoga, 423; Fulton, 148; Montgomery, 75; and Schoharie, 47. Nearly 350,000 people have now tested positive statewide.
There was one additional death each in Albany and Rensselaer counties: a man in his 90s in Albany, and a resident of the Diamond Ridge nursing home in his 80s in Rensselaer. There have now been 173 deaths in the seven counties, out of 22,478 statewide, according the state Health Department.