How does business feel about the upcoming track season?

SARATOGA SPRINGS — In her 27 years working at Putnam Market, Cathy Hamilton has never been busier than when the city is gearing up for track season.

Part of the rush can be attributed to the turbulent trajectory of the city’s role in a fast-growing county. But there are other factors at play, business owners say, including visitors who continue to shake off the rust of pandemic-induced boredom.

“There is a tremendous amount of optimism in the city and county,” said Discover Saratoga President Darryl Leghieri. “We’re seeing more traffic than pre-pandemic levels.”

Opening day at Saratoga Raceway is Thursday.

Interviews with half a dozen downtown businesses revealed a sense of optimism based on early favorable readings of the historic tea leaves.

Retail traffic downtown has been strong over the past month, said Marian M. Barker, co-owner of Impressions, a gift shop.

“We’re seeing (visitors) earlier this year,” said Barker, who also pointed to increased traffic to Saratoga Race Course’s practice track.

But at the same time, many businesses continue to struggle with adequate staffing levels.

Barker joked that she contacted every former employee who had worked for the Broadway business over the past three decades and asked them if they would be willing to take a shift.

“It’s a struggle for all of us,” she said.

During the first pandemic summer, jockeys ran horses, but fans were barred from attending, which dealt a blow to the local economy. But business bounced back last year, when more than a million horse racing fans returned to Saratoga Racetrack and set an all-time betting record, according to the New York Racing Association.

This year’s meeting will feature 40 days of competition. The season ends on September 5.

Meanwhile, Impressions shortened its hours, closing an hour earlier than usual.

Local restaurants are also dealing with hours as they try to recover, Legieri said. Not all have returned to seven-day operations.

Hamilton said Putnam Market is adjusting, but found it odd that close to zero students applied for jobs this year.

The deli and sandwich shop is carefully calibrating operations to grow the business, she said. Everything has to be in the right place.

“You have to have everything ready when the customers start coming in,” Hamilton said. “We’re trying to build in our business sprint capacity.”

Adelphi Hotel general manager Helen Watson admitted staffing levels had improved last year when she had to resort to cleaning the rooms herself.

“It was horrible,” Watson said.

Leghieri said guests should not see any impact on service levels this summer, citing conversations with multiple hotel bosses. But people still need to be patient, he said.

Hotels are already exceeding last year’s revenue per available room, a performance measure used in the hospitality industry, he said.

Historically high gas prices also haven’t affected visits, Legieri said.

“We see gas prices not being a deterrent right now.”

The annual meeting brings in an economic impact of $240 million, according to the New York Racing Association, with 2,000 jobs directly related to Saratoga Raceway.

“The summer meeting is as popular as any time in its history,” said Patrick McKenna, NYRA spokesman. “This has been reflected in record betting numbers and annual attendances of over 1 million since 2016.”

Despite the sunny business forecast, one question mark remains: the impact of mobile betting on track revenue at this year’s meeting, the last of a summer tradition that began in 1863.

In the six weeks since online betting went into effect on Jan. 8, gamblers have dumped nearly $2 billion in bets, draining the state of nearly $71 million in revenue.

NYRA said it’s confident the new dynamic won’t take a bite out of its numbers. With three meetings since legalization, the course has minimal impact, McKenna said.

“Saratoga Raceway stands alone. That’s why we’ve seen such incredibly strong enthusiasm for the actual racing product,” McKenna said. “People bet when they see an interesting race with big fields and the opportunity to win big. The reality is that Saratoga stands apart.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.