Spa Prepares for 'Best Racing in the Nation'

The New York Racing Association June 28 unveiled the details of its 2004 Saratoga meet, a 36-day gathering with a heavy line-up of horses and top trainers but one that will operate under the watchful eye of a court-appointed monitor.

The monitor, assigned earlier this year as part of a deal with prosecutors after NYRA's legal run-ins, will have complete run of the track to check on operations, as the team of lawyers have had at Aqueduct and Belmont Park. NYRA vice president Bill Nader told reporters that fans and NYRA employees will not see any changes with the presence of the monitor this year.

Meanwhile, NYRA officials are bracing for another new development at this year's Saratoga meet: nearby competition for limited gambling dollars. The Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, a harness track located just down the street from NYRA's facility, for several months has been operating 1,325 video gaming machines.

"Any impact will be negative," Nader said. "It's increased competition."

Nader said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno had once told NYRA officials the harness track would not operate the VGMs during live racing at Saratoga. But that is no longer the case, and the gaming parlor is planning a variety of marketing efforts to attract NYRA customers.

"We wish the harness industry and the harness track well," Nader said. But he cautioned that the increased competition "might compromise our position."

Nonetheless, NYRA officials were upbeat about the meet--"the best racing in the nation," Nader said--that starts July 28 and ends Sept. 6. The meet, which will bring a host of out-of-state trainers to Saratoga, including Bob Baffert and Dale Capuano, will feature a stakes every day--43 in all totaling $9.9 million. At least two stakes will run every Saturday, and eight stakes were added on weekdays.

NYRA is eliminating two 6 1/2-furlong races for 2-year-olds--the Saratoga Special and Adirondack--to keep from weakening other stakes for 2-year-olds.

"We feel it will be the strongest race meet because of our stakes," NYRA racing secretary Mike Lakow said.

NYRA officials said the Saratoga meet comes on the heels of a successful session so far at Belmont, where handle is up by $1.2 million a day compared to last year, and where 120,000 fans turned out for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

"This is not a knock on the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but the Belmont is the biggest race in the country," Nader said.

NYRA will institute a season's pass this year at Saratoga; clubhouse passes will cost $100 and grandstand passes will be $50. Among other changes will be the closing, for security reasons, of the backstretch to unlicensed individuals.

NYRA officials also defended the practice of providing season passes to top state politicians. The New York Postreported a number of state officials, including Bruno, have been provided free entrance and seats to NYRA races.

Nader said a section of state law provides that free passes be given to state lawmakers if they make an official application on their state letterhead. They are supposed to be "engaged in the performance of their duties" at the track, according to the law.

But Nader said whether the officials are working at the track is "up to the elected officials to answer. That's not our call."