Photo: Lori Van Buren, Albany Times Union
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There’s something different about Saratoga Springs this racing season, artist and boutique owner Gretchen Tisch said – but she can’t put her finger on exactly what it is.
Though Tisch has seen less traffic this summer in and out of the Feathered Antler, her Broadway art studio and shop, she said sales have exceeded expectations.
“It’s been a really weird summer,” Tisch said behind the counter of her empty store Thursday afternoon. “This is not normal, to not have people walking in and out.”
“But we’re still making more money than usual,” she added. “I can’t figure out why.”
As the 2019 racing season winds down this week following Saturday’s 150th running of the Travers Stakes, Spa City shop and restaurant owners are divided on what impact changes in the racing schedule have had on their businesses.
Tuesday traditionally has been the dark day at Saratoga Race Course, when no racing took place. This year, construction at another New York Racing Association track led to a two-week extension of the Saratoga season, but with two dark days — Monday and Tuesday — to keep the number of racing days unchanged at 40.
The final day of racing, however, will be Monday, Labor Day.
Some merchants say business has been better than ever. But others say the second weekly dark day had a big impact, as did the capricious weather — extreme heat, severe thunderstorms — that dogged the season. Still others say they’re waiting for the dust to settle.
But for the first time in nearly 13 years, an entire day of racing – which NYRA estimated was “conservatively” worth $20 million in handle — was canceled July 20, a Saturday, due to excessive heat. Twenty individual races have been canceled due to heat or rain, with the area receiving nearly 10 inches of rain since Opening Day on July 11, according to the NYRA.
“No one really knows if it’s because of the dark days or the hot weather,” Tisch said. “But we’re still doing well.”
Instead of staying downtown and spending money during the additional dark day, Tisch said she believes many track-goers are simply coming into town when the week opens on Wednesday and leaving when it wraps up on Sunday. She also believes the excessive heat and rainfall are keeping patrons from downtown after the track lets out.
It’s too soon to determine the season’s success, Discover Saratoga President Darryl Leggieri said last week. But he added that Saratoga Springs experienced a busy July, with hotel occupancy up 5.5 percent over last year.
“The two dark days of racing is certainly a big change for our lodging, retailer and restaurant partners,” Leggieri said in an email. “That said, they are adapting to the changes, but I think we need to experience the entire season before we can formulate an opinion on its success.”
Dawn Hall, owner of Tushita Heaven, where she sells incense and healing crystals, said the addition of a dark day has made a “big time” impact on her store.
“I definitely think it’s dissuaded people from coming early in the week,” Hall said. “It’s usually shoulder-to-shoulder.”
That said, Hall said her store is still making its numbers, with the added benefit of there being less “wear and tear” due to the decreased foot traffic.
But Hall said the biggest draw to the city isn’t the race track, but the town’s rich history and culture.
“They’ll come whether there are horses here or not,” she said.
Tina DiMartino, owner of the Homessence home goods store, said she thinks the additional dark day has had a “wonderful, positive effect on the town.”
“It seems more lively, more vibrant during the day, not just in the evening,” she said.
Spa City restaurants and nightspots also reported mixed results from the racing season.
“It’s felt like people are coming in on Wednesday and leaving Sunday night,” said Nancy Bambara, vice president and chief operating officer of DZ Restaurants, which owns three dining spots — Boca Bistro, Chianti and Forno Bistro — in downtown Saratoga Springs.
Tommy Nicchi, owner of The Comedy Works, said he started the season with stand-up performances scheduled on Sunday nights but soon canceled them for lack of business. The Broadway club now is running shows Wednesday through Saturday nights for the remainder of track season.
“I’m up 20 percent overall over last year,” said Danny Petrosino, chef-owner of Osteria Danny on Henry Street. Some slower Sunday- and Monday-night business was more than offset by the extra nights offered by the longer season, he said.
The upscale 15 Church, a downtown restaurant popular with the moneyed horse set, has a small dining room and a large covered patio. Between the two, an extra dark day at the track didn’t seem to have a negative effect, said the restaurant’s head chef, Michael Mastrantuono, now in his third track season at 15 Church. Last week, the restaurant served almost 400 dinners inside and out on Monday night, Mastrantuono said, adding, “If we’re open, we’re booked.”
Paul O’Donnell, of Celtic Imports, said he’s still waiting for the season to end before determining whether it’s been a success.
“But if you’re asking our opinion, we favor one dark day,” he said. He explained that with one dark day, his store was very busy on that single day, but this year “it’s kind of diluted.”
NYRA this year expanded its Season Perks program that gives season pass and season ticket holders discounts at dozens of participating restaurants, shops and attractions in the region.
It also has expanded live national TV coverage, which may have helped support betting activity despite the extreme weather at the track. Betting handle from all sources is up 8.5 percent, to $483.3 million through last Wednesday, compared to $445.4 million last year.
Jim Kommer, of James & Sons Tobacconists, said the addition of a dark day has “worked out for us.”
“The store, even on the dark days, the numbers have been in line with what they were last year,” he said.
Sitting in a chair in front of the tobacco shop, veteran horse trainer Dale Romans smoked a Nat Sherman Metropolitan Host cigar. He said during the dark days, he ends up spending more time – and money – downtown.
Even with the changes in the season’s schedule, Romans said he doesn’t anticipate a big change to the city’s atmosphere.
“You’ll talk with people who, for three generations, four generations, have come here every week,” he said. “And that’s not going to change.”
Times Union staff writers Steven Barnes and Eric Anderson contributed to this story.
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