From floundering money-loser to America’s No.1 racetrack: the amazing transformation of Saratoga

The place to be: “There’s no question that changes in the backyard played a big part in making Saratoga more popular,” says Joe Dalton, President of Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce from 1970-2010. Photo:

Marylou Whitney is known to many as the Grand Dame of Saratoga. Yet what many fans of New York racing, especially younger ones, may not realize is that she is also a savior of Saratoga.

As much as picturesque Saratoga Race Course is hailed today as the nation’s most popular and beloved racetrack, there was a time some 50 years ago when the Spa was not even the No.1 track in its own state.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Saratoga was an extremely distant third in a three-track circuit and was a drain on the financial resources of the New York Racing Association. It had penny-pinching officials and politicians wondering why it was worth all of the expense and headaches of spending four prime weeks of the racing season in an upstate city that had lost most of the vibrancy that made it famous in an earlier era.

“The problem with Saratoga in the early 1970s was that it was very expensive and you were still getting huge crowds at Belmont Park,” said Chris Scherf, the retired Executive Vice President of the Thoroughbred Racing Association who worked as NYRA’s Director of Media Relations from 1978-82. “The difference in expenses between the two meets was considerable.”

Woeful daily handle

As was the difference in wagering and attendance between historic Saratoga and NYRA’s two modern downstate racetracks.

As detailed in this accompanying chart, in 1970, a July summer meet at Aqueduct averaged on a daily basis attendance of 33,017 and a handle of $3,557,509. A subsequent fall meet at Belmont averaged 27,425 in attendance and $3,105,000.

As for the Spa, in its 24-day August meet, daily attendance averaged just 17,659 and its woeful daily handle of $1,449,523 was less than half of what was wagered each day at Aqueduct and Belmont.

With NYRA just two years removed from the completion of a five-year, $30.7 million project to rebuild Belmont Park, the red ink at Saratoga was threatening to drown the famed but aging racetrack in the Adirondack Mountains.

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens, the 58-year-old son of the late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, spent his childhood summers in Saratoga with his father and recalls a track with small crowds that teetered on the brink of becoming obsolete.

‘A thorn in NYRA’s side’

“My father said years ago that Saratoga was a thorn in NYRA’s side,” Jerkens said. “If it wasn’t for the wealthy people on the board at the time, it probably would have closed it up. Saratoga was always a money-loser.”

Saratoga a money-loser?

To hear that now, when Saratoga leads all United States tracks in daily attendance and wagering, would be the ultimate bit of fake news.

Yet about 50 years ago, it needed the help of people like Whitney and a perfect storm of events – some of them that did not happen by design - to stage an amazing rise in popularity at a time when most tracks, including Belmont Park and Aqueduct, saw attendance and on-track wagering plummet.

“Saratoga was bucking the trend when it took off in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Gerry McKeon, NYRA’s President from 1982-94. “No one else was growing, but Saratoga took off like a rocket.”

The beloved Spa

To better understand how and why Saratoga became the crown jewel of American racing, it’s best to start in the present and consider what the beloved Spa has become.

Last year, Saratoga averaged 28,016 in attendance and $17.4 million in total wagering, figures that dwarf the comparable figures for the Belmont spring/summer (5,058, $12,825,873) and fall (2,854, $8,907,594) meets. Besides propelling NYRA’s year-round operation, the prosperity and popularity of the revered racetrack has also played a leading role in turning Saratoga Springs, New York, into one of the most prosperous cities in the eastern half of the country.

“There was a study two years ago and it put the economic impact of the Saratoga Race Course on Saratoga Springs and the larger Saratoga region at $237 million a year,” said Todd Shimkus, President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.

“It is a big generator of our economic engine. We average 80-85 ribbon cuttings a year, which most communities would kill for. Unemployment is 3.6 percent and our poverty level is 5 percent. To me the interesting thing about Saratoga is how it is part our culture and everything we do. I don’t think Saratoga is Saratoga without the race course. The city and the race course would not be the same without each other.”

Expensive and thriving

As its racetrack has boomed, Saratoga Springs, with a score of thriving dining and entertainment options, has also emerged as a vibrant hub of New York’s Saratoga/Capital Region and real estate prices have soared.

“Saratoga Springs is a destination with a bunch of things to attract people. The value of property inside Saratoga Springs has outpaced many real estate areas across the country. It’s pretty strong. The average home now sells for $450,000 and downtown condominiums sell for $600,000 to $1 million. It’s surely expensive and thriving,” said Barry Potoker, Marketing Director for the locally based Roohan Realty. “As a teenager growing up in Saratoga in the 1970s, I never could have envisioned what the city has become.”

Saratoga Race Course has become such an unprecedented success that it has reversed the normal business trend in upstate New York.

“Saratoga Race Course is the only case where an upstate facility is subsiding the downstate operation,” Shimkus said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find another example of this.”

Yet it wasn’t always that way.

Crumbling city

A 35-year-old Saratoga devotee, someone who has only known a packed racetrack and thriving city, would not believe the sights and sounds of Saratoga Springs in 1970.

“If a young person of today could go back in time to Saratoga in the early 1970s, they would get back in the car, hit the gas pedal, get out of town as fast as possible. Saratoga really had nothing to offer then. It had very few restaurants. The downtown was depressed. The track was drawing 14,000 people most days,” said Joe Dalton, who was the President of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce from 1970-2010.

“In the early 1970s, probably 40 percent of first-floor space in downtown was empty. On the second and third fourth floors you probably had 80 to 90 percent vacancy. You could lose a baby carriage in the holes in the sidewalk. The parking meters didn’t work. Downtown wasn’t in great shape.”

With the city crumbling, the thought of spending four weeks in Saratoga did not sit well with many NYRA workers, even if the racing was first class.

‘A pain in the butt’ to go to Saratoga

“When I first got in the business we talked about what a pain in the butt it was to go to Saratoga,” said Marshall Cassidy, who joined NYRA in 1968 and worked as track announcer from 1979-90. “It was just an inconvenience. It was more comfortable up there in the summer but it wasn’t looked at with much happiness.”

NYRA analyst and broadcaster Andy Serling moved to Saratoga with his family in 1973 when he was 11 years-old and found a town and racetrack that bore little resemblance to today’s oasis for horsemen and racing fans.

“The town was different then. Everything was different then,” he said. “The opening day crowd would be good, but you’d go the second day, on a Tuesday, and there would be about 5,000 people.”

One blessing for today’s fan of Saratoga’s heritage was that the racetrack’s poor performance in that era probably explains why it has retained its Victorian setting.

“Years ago NYRA never modernized any of the structures at Saratoga because they didn’t think it was worth the financial investment to do that,” Shimkus said. “We have the nation’s most historic race course because they thought it wasn’t going to work in the long run. Thank God they didn’t modernize it, because otherwise that charm might be gone.”

Rickety old clubhouse

That Saratoga’s fortunes took such a dramatic 180-degree turn still amazes some people who played key roles at NYRA during that era.

“Go back 40 years and I don’t think you could have imagined what the live racetrack experience would come to be at Saratoga, especially with a rickety old clubhouse and no air conditioning,” said Charles Hayward, NYRA President from 2004-12 and now president and publisher of TRC. “It’s not very comfortable in a five-person box, but it became the place to be.”

As Glenn Mathes, who worked at NYRA from 1982 to 2005 and was Director of Media Relations for 14 years, put it, “there’s no magic bullet when it comes to explaining what happened at Saratoga. A lot of things went into the change of fortunes.”

Yet a search for an answer should definitely start with Marylou Whitney (photo: In the 1960s, when Saratoga was under-achieving, she and her husband, C.V. ‘Sonny’ Whitney, along with other prominent members of the NYRA Board such as Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Ogden Phipps, offered stiff resistance to any notion of closing the Spa.

“Absolutely it was people like Marylou Whitney and Alfred G. Vanderbilt who led the fight to keep Saratoga alive,” Cassidy said. “Alfred was willing to fight over it. They kept Saratoga’s nose above water.”

Leading the charge

Marylou Whitney was by far the most vocal supporter of Saratoga as she worked tirelessly to build support for the racetrack and city.

“Sonny and I loved Saratoga so much,” said the 91-year-old Whitney, who is enshrined in Saratoga’s Walk of Fame. “We knew it needed to be put on the map. Sonny told me, ‘I’m leaving it up to you to do everything you can to save Saratoga.’ So I did it with his urging.  Everything at that time was dead here; the track was dead!”

With Saratoga’s most famous resident leading the charge, things slowly began to change in Saratoga.

“Marylou was always very vocal and very smart,” said Maureen Lewi, a longtime friend of the Whitneys and currently Chair of the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga. “Sonny understood business but he would not speak up so he let Marylou talk because he knew things had to change. She spoke out and would also pick up a phone and call people and they would listen to her.”

Yet even Whitney needed help to save floundering Saratoga, and she found a willing compatriot in Joe Dalton, who rallied a large group of residents to improve the quality of life in Saratoga Springs.

Community effort

“Marylou was very involved in maintaining the image of Saratoga as great place to live in or visit,” he said. “She was always one of the best promoters of Saratoga. She did a lot to create an image of class for Saratoga that started to come into full effect in the mid-1970s. She didn’t do it by herself, though. There were hundreds of Saratogians also involved in it. It was a total community effort.

“The visitors to Saratoga used to see a dilapidated downtown area in the 1960s. Downtown was third class. But in the 1970s they saw revival. They saw a renovation of the architecture in Saratoga. They saw sidewalk cafes open up. About 250 trees were planted downtown with flower beds in each of them. People saw an improvement in the appearance of the city and in the activities that they could take advantage of. Saratoga regained its charm.”

Andy Serling, as a Saratoga resident and avid fan of the racetrack, believes that, as Saratoga Springs prospered, it encouraged more racing fans to visit the Spa.

“As Saratoga got to be more of a fun town, people realized it wasn’t just a place to spend a day at the races. There were a lot of places to go and to eat,” Serling said. “In the 1970s and 1980s, it became a place where once you visited it, you wanted to go back.”

By 1980, Saratoga’s renaissance had kicked into high gear and for the first time daily average attendance at Saratoga (23,567) topped both the Belmont spring/summer (21,911) and fall (17,793).

Role reversal

Three years later, Saratoga’s average attendance soared to 26,641, while Belmont’s 1983 totals slipped to 19,531 and 16,732, respectively, and Saratoga has been the flagship of NYRA’s fleet ever since then.

The role reversal became complete in 1986, when Saratoga’s average daily on-track handle ($3,167,953) surpassed both Belmont meets ($3,149,162 spring/summer; $2,735,804).

After that, the gap between the two only widened, with Saratoga increasing its edge over downstate tracks with each passing year.

“Once Saratoga got its mojo going, it took off,” said 69-year-old trainer Pat Kelly, who spent his youth at Saratoga with his father, trainer Tommy Kelly. “It’s wild to see how it has changed.”

Saratoga faced a different threat in the early 1970s when there was a push to conduct a concurrent August meet at Belmont or Aqueduct to offset the lost revenue from 24 days at the Spa.

A leading proponent of eliminating Saratoga’s exclusivity was the head of New York City Off-Track Betting, Howard Samuels. Dubbed ‘Howie the Horse’, Samuels had key political connections, making him a tough adversary for NYRA. His main concern was increasing NYC OTB’s handle and he bristled at the weak figures for Saratoga.

Political power

Addressing speculation of a concurrent meet, NYRA President Jack Krumpe said during a 1972 press conference at Saratoga that he wanted Saratoga to remain a “major league” circuit but, according to a report in the Saratogian newspaper, he added that Saratoga would not have to be playing necessarily in the same major league as other tracks.

“We would have ruined Saratoga,” said McKeon, who joined NYRA in 1971. “There would have been Class B racing at Belmont and Class B or C racing at Saratoga that would have ruined its reputation.”

Part of Krumpe’s unwillingness to dismiss a concurrent meet stemmed from Samuels’ political power and aspirations. Samuels ran for Governor in 1974 and was the choice of the Democratic State Committee with 68 percent of its vote.

As Governor, Samuels could have launched a powerful push to re-write New York’s racing laws. But, even with the committee’s backing, Samuels lost in the Democratic primary to Hugh Carey by more than 200,000 votes.

Carey, a fan of racing and Saratoga, also won the general election, which ended all talk of a concurrent meet.

While Carey’s election as Governor ended any thoughts of closing Saratoga, growing business at the famed racetrack was a different story.

As much as the opening in 1963 of the Northway, an interstate highway that made travel from New York City much easier, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1966 were boosts to the region, the 1970 figures indicate they did not have an immediate impact on activity at the Spa.

A few of the key factors in Saratoga’s growth included:

1. Expansion of the backyard area

Changes to Saratoga’s backyard area were largely responsible for the huge increases in attendance, but they initially happened due to fears about the layout of the saddling area and liability concerns.

Go back to 1974 and Saratoga strained to handle a crowd of 30,000, a figure only about 2,000 more than last year’s average attendance. Back then, the backyard was basically a large open area where horses were saddled under trees and fans could walk over and stand within an arm’s length of them.

As time passed and NYRA searched for a way to accommodate more fans, in 1977 it began to open the infield on Saturdays, a practice that became problematic and was ultimately discontinued.

Saratoga leads all America’s racetracks in attendance and wagering, but it wasn’t always that way. Photo:

Meanwhile, in order to protect itself from lawsuits, NYRA changed the layout of the backyard in the late 1970s and created an enclosed paddock where horses could be saddled without fear of the general public getting too close to them.

“The old paddock was a beautiful sight but it was scary when you saw kids reach out to touch the horses,” Cassidy said.

The change, however, created more room surrounding the new paddock, allowing fans to bring in chairs or beach blankets and food and beverages to eat and drink, and they spent the day playing the races from the shady backyard.

As it turned out, after a century of Saratoga being a playground for the rich and famous, NYRA had stumbled onto a way to create an area that everyday, blue-collar fans could call their own, especially on weekend days when clubhouse and grandstand seats usually sold out.

“The backyard changes were a safety thing at first,” Mathes said, “but they made it more family friendly and going to the track became a family tradition.”

As NYRA officials noticed more people enjoying an afternoon in the backyard, they slowly expanded the area.

“Every year we added something to that backyard, like picnic tables, televisions on trees and mutuel bays,” McKeon said. “We found it was the audience we wanted. We wanted families who would bring their kids, who would hopefully become the next generation of fans.”

NYRA continued to cut into parking areas and expand the backyard until 1985, when a major overhaul brought the backyard to its current state and filled the area with hundreds of picnic tables, additional wagering areas and televisions so it could handle crowds of about 20,000. That sent attendance figures sky-rocketing.

“During my years at NYRA, Pat Kehoe was our general counsel and the first time he took his wife to Saratoga they had seats for a few races,” Charles Hayward said. “But they left after that because she got bored. On the way out, they walked past the paddock and the backyard and she said, ‘What’s this?’ They stayed there the rest of the day because she wanted to see the horses.”

Today, on major race days, the enduring popularity of the backyard can be seen in the long lines of people outside Saratoga’s main entrance in the early morning hours, all of them waiting for the gates to open at 7 a.m. so they can rush into the backyard and claim one of the first-come-first-served picnic tables for the afternoon.

“There’s no question that changes in the backyard played a big part in making Saratoga more popular,” Dalton said. “It took away some of the charm. You used to be able to see a horse within ten feet of you that you were going to bet on. But it attracted more people who were able to get a spot without paying through the nose. It was a major change. It gave the $2 bettor a place to enjoy the day.”

2. Marketing

NYRA was actually ahead of the curve in racetrack marketing.

“In the late 1970s the only two tracks with marketing departments were Santa Anita and NYRA and people wondered why would you market racing,” Scherf said. “We had a $2 million budget back then and people thought marketing Saratoga was the silliest thing in the world.”

Though it had its own marketing department, NYRA hit a home run in the late 1970s when it reached out to Ed Lewi and his wife, Maureen, to assist in marketing the Saratoga meet. Lewi lived in Saratoga and was well known and respected in the area for his successful work in promoting, among others, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

“It was a tough battle convincing NYRA that they needed to promote themselves,” said Maureen Lewi, whose husband passed away in 2015. “Ed was originally brought in to handle local press and mend fences.”

Ed and Maureen developed a lasting friendship with Marylou Whitney and they effectively worked together to put Saratoga back on the map as a summer destination.

“Ed Lewi had so many ideas of what we could do to save Saratoga, and Maureen followed through on everything. Together the three of us put the track on the upswing, year after year,” Marylou Whitney said. “We were able to keep Saratoga in the spotlight with national TV shows, magazine articles and with publicity about the stars Sonny and I invited to Saratoga. Of course, I made some enemies in the racing community – those people who wanted to keep Saratoga more private.”

Lewi used a full range of tactics to bring a spotlight on the city and racetrack.

“There was a push to make Saratoga more than a racetrack. It needed festivals and promotions and celebrities and television,” Maureen Lewi said. “Ed was hell-bent on making Saratoga much more publicity-wise and promotion-wise. He wanted to expand television rights, anything to get Saratoga’s name out there. He and Marylou did a lot. Anytime he wanted to get the NBC Nightly News up to Saratoga, Marylou was the hook.”

One of Ed Lewi’s creations was a slogan that captured the essence of summer days at Saratoga. Lewi branded Saratoga as ‘The August Place To Be’ and the campaign resonated with racing fans and even mainstream sports fans. When Saratoga expanded to 30 days in 1991 and 36 in 1997, the words were changed to ‘The Summer Place To Be’.

“The impact of ‘The August Place To Be’ campaign was that it made everyone want to see Saratoga, especially people downstate,” Scherf said. “It was a great idea.”

3. The growth of OTB

As much as the launch of New York City OTB in April 1971 led to spiraling attendance at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, it also pushed NYRA to focus more attention on Saratoga.

While NYRA had to contend with dozens of OTB parlors in the five boroughs of New York City, there were none in Saratoga, making the Spa fertile grounds for growth and development.

“The people at Saratoga really wanted us there,” McKeon said. “Downstate we got the feeling we were antagonizing the government or they were antagonizing us. In Saratoga, racing was the only major league sport they had and they embraced it. In the mid-1970s we looked forward to Saratoga.

“OTB was growing rapidly then, to the point where downstate we were struggling in the competition with OTB. But there was no OTB in Saratoga County and we wanted to take advantage of that. What was special and refreshing about Saratoga was that it was a change from running all those days downstate and being in constant confrontation with the state. We were constantly bowing to the government to get the franchise extended. Eventually it was successful, but it took a lot of effort to do it and it prevented us from concentrating on the sport, which we wanted to do. We had to concentrate on the politics to keep the franchise going.

“I don’t know if marketing in the New York City area did much good for us with 104 OTB shops in the city. If you advertised a race it didn’t necessarily motivate people to go to the track. They could bet the race at an off-track shop. But in Saratoga it did because there is no OTB and we could focus on building up Saratoga. Our problems with OTB gave us a reason to put more energy and resources in Saratoga to increase attendance and handle.”

4. Great horses

The 1970s produced three Triple Crown champions and two of them, Secretariat (1973) and Affirmed (1978), raced at Saratoga.

Other stars from that decade including Forego, Riva Ridge, Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure also raced at the Spa, giving it the star power necessary to entice people in New York City to hop in the car and travel for three hours to reach NYRA’s upstate home.

“There were some very popular horses running in the 1970s at Saratoga and I pin most of the credit for generating the increased attention on Saratoga on Secretariat,” Cassidy said. “There was no single genius that turned Saratoga around, but if there was, it was Secretariat.”

5. Television and simulcasting

Television pictures played a key role in showing racing fans the beauty of Saratoga.

First came a half-hour show on Saturdays that aired on a local channel in New York and presented the featured race of the day and the last race. Presented by NYRA in conjunction with NYC OTB and launched at NYRA tracks in 1973, the show featured trainer Frank Wright, Dave Johnson and Charlsie Cantey as hosts with Cassidy coming aboard when he replaced Johnson as the track announcer.

“Frank Wright and Charlsie Cantey showed what a wonderful destination Saratoga was and how much fun it was,” Scherf said. “You didn’t have to be a huge racing fan to enjoy them. They weren’t heavy on betting and showed how much fun racing can be.”

Simulcasting entered the scene in 1990 and created expanded awareness of the quality of the daily cards at Saratoga and the beauty of the racetrack.

“When people across the country saw that Saratoga was a good betting product it made people more interested in it. They saw great racing, a beautiful track in a nice area and figured they should go there,” Mathes said.

There are, of course, many more reasons, and each of them helped to turn NYRA’s weak link into something truly special and create a story that seemed far-fetched 50 years ago.

“How Saratoga turned around was like a Horatio Alger story,” Cassidy said. “It’s an unbelievable story.”

Only in this instance, the role of Alger was played rather brilliantly by none other than the Grand Dame of Saratoga.

“I am extremely proud, and so grateful for being able to play a major role in letting the world learn what a wonderful place Saratoga is,” Marylou Whitney said. “It makes me so happy to see so many people having fun at the track and at all of the events throughout the city.”

How the three NYRA tracks have compared over the years on wagering and attendances: the stats

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