They're off at Saratoga

The New York Racing Association didn't know what to expect when it opened Saratoga Race Course on a Friday instead of the traditional Wednesday opening.

All that NYRA officials knew was that it had to be better than being at Belmont in July.

The results put a smile on NYRA President and CEO Charlie Hayward's face. Though the numbers were down from Saratoga's 2009, it was still an improvement over Belmont's final weekend at this time last year. The average attendance over the first four days at Saratoga was 18,113, and the average on-track handle was approximately $2.5 million.

These four days at Saratoga have been unchartered territory with no relevant measure for comparison, said Hayward in a press release. "We're quite satisfied with the results, which serve as a springboard to kick off the first full week of the meet."

The fact that Saratoga was holding thoroughbred races put smiles on the faces of those who attended opening weekend at the track. NYRA had warned that it would pull the plug on the summer schedule unless the state loaned it money to keep the organization running. The state came through with $25 million loan in late May, partially through the efforts of U.S. Representative Scott Murphy, who's congressional district includes Saratoga Springs.

"I'd been talking to the governor [David Paterson] and talking with Charlie Hayward all year trying to make certain that this meet would come off," said Murphy. "It was very important that we got the funding to make certain this meet could happen."

The thought that there wouldn't be a Saratoga meet had people in the community concerned.

"Saratoga would have been in a lot of trouble," said city resident Olivia Jelenik, who runs two private parking lots near the track. "I definitely think Saratoga has its own appeal besides the track, but I don't know if it could survive without it."

Trainer Todd Pletcher said he remained optimistic that there would be a Saratoga meet, even as NYRA claimed it was teetering on the brink of shutting down.

"I didn't ever think they wouldn't run here, and I'm glad that they are," said Pletcher.

Now that the horses are running at Saratoga, Pletcher and the rest of the thoroughbred community can focus their attention on winning races.

"I know how hard it is to win here," said Pletcher, who is seeking his seventh trainer title at Saratoga.""

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