So the doom-and-gloom propagated by the media Tuesday came as little surprise after the New York Racing Association announced the lacking attendance figures at the Saratoga Race Course. Of course, most cognizant viewers and readers realize this abrupt downtrend in racing fans was a product of the bombshell laid on opening day last week, when Mother Nature threatened to turn the grandstand into a makeshift Noah’s Ark for the rich.
All this was followed with a weekend forecast that seemed to mimic the Weather Channel’s recent series on tropical storms. Those who booked their trips in advance plodded through the thundershowers, which all but ruined the city’s Hat’s Off celebration on Saturday. Regional track goers did what they always do when the weather looks dreary: They stayed home. With six weeks of track season, anyone within a 30-mile radius of Saratoga Springs can readily make plans to go another weekend.
“We came into the 2008 Saratoga meet knowing that the economy, gas prices and a particularly early start in July would result in business declines compared to a record 2007,” explained NYRA President Charles Hayward. “But ultimately, we’re more dependent on the weather than anything.”
Naturally, there were a few fear-mongers in the media that picked up these less-than-reassuring words and ran with them. Unfortunately, one of these fear mongers was ESPN Network columnist Paul Moran, who lambasted the slow start and offered it as evidence of Saratoga’s impending demise.
“Wet weather during the meeting's first week is partly to blame for the pronounced if not troubling slump in betting and attendance but nature is not the only force at work here,” he wrote in the column published Tuesday. “The public response to the $7.50 can of beer, $12 martini, $15 glass of wine, $45 steak, the $450-a-day six-seat box, $10 on-track parking and $500-a-night no-star hotel room may be the indicators that summer in Saratoga has reached critical mass.”
Saratoga has reached critical mass? Well then that explains the ceaseless procession of new restaurants and hotels that seem to be showing up in any corner where the city allows them. That must also explain the state’s recent multi-million dollar commitment to expand the City Center and the millions NYRA recently plunged into improvements at the track. Yes Paul, it sure does look like Saratoga Springs is about to enter a long depression. Maybe that explains why developers are willing to build $500,000 condominiums that overlook Congress Park.
True, the Spa City is not immune to the economic downtrend that is about to wreck havoc on the upstate economy. But Saratoga summers have been one of the state’s top draws, excluding the more internationally recognized icons of New York City and Niagra Falls. Saratoga lies on a major rail corridor, within a short distance of an international airport and within an easy commute of the state capital. So it’s tough to say “[t]he party, if not quite over, is muted” with a straight face, especially if you’ve driven through the Capital Region’s other failing cities.
Moran’s other point about price gouging is a bit more credible, but not by much. When downtown was struggling to reinvent itself in the 1960s and 1970s, the only real way to capitalize on the track’s success was to lure business with the attractive prices of upstate New York; cheap food, cheap beer, cheap property, cheap women, cheap everything. Back then, the New York City dollar was worth three times as much in the Spa City. And it remained that way well into the 1990s, when the rebirth was complete and Saratoga emerged triumphantly from its fiery ashes.
By the turn of the real estate boom, the city had become so vogue that it’s downtown buildings were being valued at more than 10 times what many owners had paid for them. Rents went up and they were soon followed by prices and expectations. No longer was the standard steak-and-burger place welcome on Broadway, or any other street for that matter. The nouveau riche born out of the mortgage business windfall started demanding the same type of standards they enjoyed in the cosmopolitan areas of the country; designer martinis, chic accommodations, artisan menus and so on.
But these same ingrates haven’t raised their price expectations. They still think the pursuit of this living downtown will run them the same as it did three decades ago. Here in lies Moran’s quandary.
The truth is Saratoga is every bit as affordable as it once was. The only difference is that the high society living is once again being confined to those plutocrats who can afford it. The rest of us plebeians must forgo the Godiva Chocolate martinis, the 14-ounce Black Angus filet mignon and a chauffeured ride from the luxury suites overlooking the city.
That’s alright though. Procuring a dozen cold bottles of John K. Labatt’s finest blue label beer at the corner A-Plus costs a whopping $9.99, just $2 more than it did during racing season 15 years ago. There’s no need to fork over a Hamilton for parking, when the city is teaming with side streets where the parking is free and the walk to the track is pleasant. Instead of squandering $45 on a char-grilled steak downtown, the money could easily be invested in small hibachi, a side of cow and all the other accoutrements for a good ol’ fashion barbeque.
This is simple living cut from the opulence of Whitney galas and Ferraris, but it’s every bit as enjoyable. In fact, the editorial staff here at iSaratoga has found this sort of living more fulfilling than any drag through the highfalutin times of the rich. Perhaps it’s something Moran should take into account before his next column cheering for the demise of Saratoga.