I swore to myself I wouldn’t write an article on the likelihood of racing in Saratoga unless I could promise it would be different from anything else that’s out there. In a roundabout way, I got to that point Tuesday, when multiple Saratoga discussions populated my social media timelines and got my brain going.
Right off the bat, I’ll start with a disclaimer: This is not an impassioned article to go full-speed ahead, torpedoes be damned, and run at Saratoga. That may surprise you given my background, but I urge you to move forward with an open mind. On the other hand, this is also not something admonishing NYRA for still considering the possibility of a Saratoga meet.
Instead, this column focused on the most underused phrase on social media, and one I feel is as valuable as any in the English language. It’s a simple, three-word, three-syllable phrase that doesn’t reflect nearly as much weakness as it implies, and one a lot of people should have tattooed on a forearm as a reminder of what to say during tricky situations.
In a convenient plot twist, I’m also alluding to my specific feelings on the Saratoga conundrum. All of this can be summarized with this very sentence: I don’t know.
Let those words resonate for a moment, and let me tell you how hard it was to arrive at that conclusion. You may find people who love Saratoga as much as I do, but the list of people who love it more is very, very short. I’m an Upstate New York native who spent parts of every summer in the backyard picnic area and frequently travels back east from California to spend a few days there with my family and remaining friends within the industry.
I’m also not without a financial interest in this debate. As you’ve heard me shout from the mountaintops every summer, I’m the featured handicapper in The Pink Sheet, which is sold outside the track and distributed around Saratoga. I’ve also profiled Saratoga races for freelance gigs at entities such as The Daily Racing Form, The Saratoga Special, Oddschecker US, and Horse Racing Nation. Simply put, you’re not going to find many people in racing’s media contingent whose reputations are so tied to one particular high-profile track, and if races scheduled for Saratoga are not run at Saratoga, chances are I’m out a significant chunk of change.
On the other hand, there’s no playbook to fight back against what has happened over the past few months. When the coronavirus hit, it sent societies everywhere into panicked frenzies, and justifiably so. Even now, as some states prepare to cautiously roll out plans designed to achieve some version of normality, there’s a lot we don’t know, as evidenced by the healthy social distancing regulations in place even in states eager to “reopen.” Major sports leagues, for instance have already seemed to accept a reality where fans are not in attendance, which would’ve been a blasphemous thought just three months ago.
How does horse racing properly weigh all of this? I don’t know.
I’m friends with people who want tracks to reopen yesterday with protocols in place similar to the ones at Oaklawn, Gulfstream, and other locales currently open for business. They feel this way out of legitimate concern for both the industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. On the contrary, I also know people who wonder how we can justify racing at all, anywhere, for any amount of money, during the current pandemic. These reasons are understandable, too. They don’t want people possibly exposing themselves to a deadly virus when millions of people are following orders to shelter in place.
If we’re solely using those two standpoints, I’m going to lean to the side advocating for the reopening of tracks, provided systems are in place that protect all stakeholders involved. I can’t support denying people the right to make an honest living, especially when unemployment numbers are rising every day. If the protocol that has been rolled out by several tracks has been proven effective, let’s use it and, at a minimum, get an industry that employs a lot of people on the road to recovery.
Having said that, there are other factors in play when Saratoga is involved. Boutique meets at tracks like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland rely heavily on community support and on horses and their handlers shipping in from out of town. Even if New York wasn’t one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to see a pre-pandemic scene at Saratoga materializing anytime soon. Add in the dizzying numbers that have been coming out of the Empire State, specifically New York City, and things get even murkier.
What should they do? I don’t know.
None of the alternatives are attractive. No sane person wants a situation where New York’s horse racing circuit is done through the summer. The idea of running Saratoga’s races at Belmont during its designated time of year has been floated, but with all due respect to Belmont, that would feel like a cheapening of the product. One could also foresee a scenario where Saratoga runs its dates later in the year in hopes of attracting crowds after the public threat of the coronavirus subsides, but it gets cold early (anything after mid-October would be risky), weekday crowds would be non-existent since kids would be back at school, and for all we know, the virus may still be around at that point.
There’s no outcome that’s going to please everyone, and the stakes are high. If racing returns to Saratoga too early, one of the most beloved tracks in the country could take a substantial hit. If it doesn’t return at all, NYRA’s business gets clipped in the knees, and horsemen and horsewomen struggle to make payroll. Like everyone else in the world, racing executives in New York are at the mercy of a virus that doesn’t have a designated end date, and tough decisions are going to have to be made.
When I was thinking about writing this article, a close friend told me that my stance wouldn’t win any arguments, which seems like the real currency right now. I find it hard to disagree with him, especially in the culture that’s been created by experts in the “shout loudly and mobilize fellow loud people” field. Still, I’ve heard a lot of opinions by a lot of smart folks of late, and I’m left wanting a solution that almost certainly doesn’t exist.
How does New York make what seems like an impossible decision, one that has far-reaching effects on horsemen, horsewomen, the city of Saratoga Springs, and, by extension, the United States racing circuit at large?
I don’t know.
And I don’t know when, how, or why it became a bad thing to say that.