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NYRA Makes a Speedy Return to Saratoga

Each year when Saratoga Race Course opens its gates to start another festive season of racing, there will be comments about how quickly time passes.

Remarks will be along the familiar lines of “It seems like we here only yesterday.” 

Even though 10 months had passed since the previous year’s final card on Labor Day.

Yet this year, there will be a different twist on those words.

It will be more like, “Weren’t we just here?”

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Instead of the normal 10-month absence to make the heart grow fonder for the Spa, the summer meet begins July 11, 4 1/2 weeks since crowds last flocked to the beloved racetrack in upstate New York.

It was just last month when the June 6-9, four-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival brought the electricity of the Triple Crown to the Spa and whet appetites for the incredibly popular 40-day summer meet.

It also made the New York Racing Association’s transition from Aqueduct Racetrack to the Spa the easiest it has ever been since much of the equipment to conduct the meet remained upstate and all of the facilities came out of winter hibernation to support the crowds that turned out for the four days of June racing, featuring the Belmont Stakes (G1).

“We didn’t have to put the entirety of the frontside operation into moth balls like you normally do at the end of the summer meet. So, it’s all about freshening up and making some minor adjustments to make it feel like Saratoga,” said Andrew Offerman, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing and operations. “People saw some different things during the Belmont week but we will now revert back to the traditional Saratoga look and feel.”

Though Offerman has worked for NYRA during past Saratoga meets, this will be his first at the helm of the racing department as he replaced Frank Gabriel in February.

The 38-year-old native of Minnesota said it was helpful to receive a crash course in guiding the department through a Saratoga stint during the brief stay in June.

“It helped to go through it in this capacity. Even though it was just four days, it helped me to become more comfortable with some of the procedures and processes that are specific to Saratoga. It started my thought process about Saratoga in March as opposed to a few months later,” Offerman said. “For me, it’s an honor and privilege to be in this position. It’s one of the most special places in racing where you feel and appreciate the history of the sport. To have a small part in that is a lot to process.”

While the June festival gave trainers a reason to ship to Saratoga earlier than usual to prepare for the summer meet, Offerman said that it had a negative impact on racing when it resumed at Aqueduct. The July 6 card, topped by the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T), had just 67 starters as opposed to about 100 in the past. The four graded stakes attracted 23 starters.

“It helped with the Belmont Stakes festival when you look at the participation over that week. But the  challenges we saw this past week in the entry box and in the quality of racing the last seven to 10 days were probably impacted by people who had already gone north to target a Saratoga race,” Offerman said.

In terms of wagering, as of 5:30 p.m. July 10, NYRA and TVG/FanDuel had yet to reach a contract agreement, which will prevent the advance-deposit wagering company from accepting wagers on Saratoga. Wagering will be available through all other NYRA outlets, including NYRA Bets, and Saratoga racing can be seen nationally through “Saratoga Live” on FOX Sports networks.

The 40-day meet will feature 71 stakes, 19 of them grade 1s including two grade 1 steeplechases, worth $20.75 million and highlighted by the Aug. 24 155th running of the Travers Stakes (G1), which will have a major say in deciding the 3-year-old male title.

A year ago, Chad Brown and Linda Rice shared the trainer’s title in dramatic fashion as Rice won the final race of the meet to forge a 35-35 tie.

For Brown, it was his third straight Spa title, and he voiced a concern about turf racing at the meet, saying NYRA should be careful in the number of races and the types of races it cards for its two grass courses.

“We’ll see what happens. A lot of it will come down to the weather and the races offered. Over the last couple of years it seems like there has been a lot of cheaper races offered on turf. I hope NYRA gets away from that and focuses on quality at Saratoga and that they focus on preserving the courses for the better, high-class races,” said the six-time Spa training champ. “I think having too many lower-level races cheapens the meet a little bit. That’s been a slow trend that I don’t think is in the best interest of their flagship meet. There should be a minimum bar for quality at this meet.”

Offerman said the 2024 meet should resemble last year’s in terms of the races and other key areas.

“The meet this year will be substantially similar to what folks saw last year. Frank Gabriel did a lot of work on the Saratoga stakes schedule the summer before his departure. There were some small tweaks to the overnight purses that we did to round off numbers. I think it will be a similar experience as last year,” Offerman said.

One change involves the draw dates for races. For this meet, NYRA will employ a six-day draw for most days.

The schedule calls for Thursday draws for Wednesdays, Fridays for Thursdays, Saturdays for Fridays, Sundays for Saturdays, and Wednesdays for Sundays.

“I had discussions with our vet team in general about our entry schedule in regard to some of the changes in pre-entry exams and some of the screening they are putting in place. They really favored additional time. That was the primary drive,” Offerman said. “But I also looked at all of the Mid-Atlantic tracks at this time of year and looked at areas like Delaware and Maryland and they were drawing six or seven days out. I spoke with (racing secretary Keith Doleshel) and I knew there was some hesitation in the past. But I asked, ‘Are you seeing an impact from people that are entering elsewhere six or seven days out and are waiting on us who don’t know what to do because they have to make a decision in another jurisdiction?’ He said yes. So I said if that’s the case it can serve for the betterment of horse welfare and make it a schedule that aligns with the rest of the region. So it made sense to try it for Saratoga and see how it works.”

Offerman said the process will be reviewed before a decision on extending the format to Aqueduct will be made.

“We will see how it goes,” Offerman said. “Some people have voiced concern about the impact on scratches and trying to card grass races. I’d like to see it succeed. I think it makes sense. But I do not want to be stuck if there are unintended consequences.”

In looking forward to Thursday, Offerman said he could feel the excitement growing, even if the wait was only 4 1/2 weeks instead of 10 months.

“What I am most excited about is the energy that it brings. Obviously the racing is exciting in its own right, but the energy that it brings to the sport is what I am looking forward to the most; being able to exist in that for 40 days. It brings excitement to the industry and a change in attitude that’s appreciated. It’s been a long stint downstate at Aqueduct and there’s been a lot going on with the Belmont construction. So, I think the opportunity to go north and get back to Saratoga where things are so familiar will be good for everyone.”

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