When Charlie's only child was born, he was not present at the hospital. The blessed event occurred during August, conflicting with a day of racing at Saratoga. "There was really no choice," Charlie said. That was a measure of his -- and of many racing fans' -- dedication to this special place.
So it was surprising to hear Charlie mention the other day that he was thinking of spending next summer at Del Mar Race Track in California -- or just about any track but Saratoga. "Let's face it," he said ruefully, "this place is never going to be what it was. It's ruined."
This may sound like an overly harsh condemnation, but it is part of an increasingly loud chorus of complaints about Saratoga. Even officials of the New York Racing Association have joined it. "There's a negative kind of feeling among people who go racing every day," acknowledged Don Drew, NYRA's executive vice president. "The party could be over here."
There is no mystery about what has happened to Saratoga: it has been spoiled by its own success. Throughout its 118-year history, the track has always been a mecca for people who love the sport -- from the Whitneys and the Vanderbilts to the hardcore downstate bettors who were able to enjoy one month a year of civility here. When I started coming to Saratoga, in 1970, there might be 9,000 people in a typical weekday crowd, and if I randomly struck up a conversation with one of them I would likely be talking to someone who shared my passion for the game.
In the past decade, however, the track has become a different kind of phenomenon -- a big tourist attraction. Spurred by publicity, by the "I Love New York" advertising campaign, by economic conditions that encourage people to vacation closer to home, it has become an attraction for the masses. There was such a demand for the track's 7,500 reserved seats that they went on sale -- and were immediately sold out -- on Jan. 1 each year. By last season, weekday crowds of 20,000 were routine.
If the facilities were overtaxed in the past, this is the season when Saratoga seemed to reach the breaking point, when going to the track became almost an ordeal.
Not only is the track operating on 27 consecutive afternoons, with no days off, but the human congestion has often been more than a civilized man can bear. Weekday crowds of 25,000 are commonplace; more than 42,000 people showed up for the Travers Stakes.
Since there aren't any available seats, people bring lawn chairs and put them just about anywhere. Getting from a grandstand seat to a betting window one minute to post time requires running an obstacle course worthy of Marine Corps basic training. There are lines at the betting windows, lines at the bathrooms, lines at the ice cream stands, lines everywhere.
It was this way until a little more than a week ago. And then attendance started to decline -- sometimes drastically. The 27-day grind was wearing down some players (and their bankrolls), but Drew thinks the reason is that customers were finally getting fed up with the inadequate facilities. "You've seen the decline in the figures," he said. "I have a strong feeling that people have just been tested to their limits."
Unlike just about any other business, which would expand its facilities to accommodate increasing demand, Saratoga is in a peculiar position. The NYRA would like to sell $75 million worth of bonds, backed by its own property, to improve facilities at Saratoga as well as the downstate tracks. Money would be used here to build a new dining room on the clubhouse turn, construct a tunnel to the infield and develop the infield so that expanse of ground could handle some of the overflow crowds. "We have the answer to Saratoga's problems," Drew said. "The problem is convincing the legislature."
Unfortunately for the NYRA, its charter from the state expires in 1985, and the whole question of its renewal has become a political football. Various powerful legislators have various ideas about the future of racing in New York. Some legislators are arguing that the NYRA tracks belong not to the NYRA but to the state of New York. The NYRA cannot go to a bank or to the financial marketplace to borrow money when its future existence is in doubt.
So there are not going to be any changes at Saratoga for the foreseeable future. Until they are made, this track will never again be the little oasis of civility that it has been for most of its history.