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Despite Attendance Cap, 100k Anticipated for Travers Day
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Any municipality preparing to host a major event such as baseball’s World Series, a World Fair, or a visiting monarch would do well to reach out to the public and private leadership in the City of Saratoga Springs for a bit of advice.
Every year, without fail, the City hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world during Saratoga racing season, a feat requiring constant communication and smooth, dance-like coordination between stakeholders to pull off.
This year, with racing’s own visiting monarch in the form of Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah, plus Earth, Wind, and Fire and Chicago performing Saturday evening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), crowds could reach 100,000 people on Travers Day, August 29, but the experienced small city in the country is more than ready.
“We definitely have more staff on duty than we normally would,” said Gregory Veitch, chief of police of the Saratoga Springs Police Department. “We anticipate it being one of the largest track sizes that we have seen in a long time. It’s going to be a big deal and we’ve been planning this for quite some time. There will be an increased presence by all law enforcement, emergency medical and fire. We aren’t doing this in a vacuum.”
In the century and a half of summer racing seasons, successful public safety and coordination at local, state, and federal levels has played an important role in keeping fans and visitors returning year after year.
“A lot of thought has gone into our coordinating with other agencies, and we are very appreciative of them,” said Christian Mathiesen, commissioner of Public Safety in Saratoga Springs. “I know the sheriff’s department will be very helpful, especially with traffic. The fire department will have an increased presence, and EMS will have two engine crews instead of one and one HAZMAT truck at the racetrack. The Police Department will have some changes in the traffic patterns, and overall staff will be optimal to take care of issues at the track and throughout the City. My advice to everyone is to come early and be patient, not to expect to breeze right into the City.”
Visitors will be driving in to attend the concert at SPAC around the same time the people are leaving the racecourse after the last race, so traffic patterns may change to accommodate the increase and timing. Visitors are asked not to honk their horns, as this can startle the horses. (See page 14 for important traffic safety notices).
Public safety is just one piece of the larger entertainment puzzle put together by public and private partnerships in the City. As a destination locale, there is quite a bit of effort put into assuring everyone has a good time.
“We began talking and staying in touch as soon as American Pharoah won the Triple Crown,” said Todd Shimkus, CCE, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. “The Convention and Tourism Bureau, Downtown Business Association, CDTA, the Mayor’s office, the Police Chief – we even talked with Amtrak the week after he won.”
Those conversations continued throughout the season. “There has been months of preparation ahead of this year’s Travers in anticipation of American Pharoah coming to Saratoga,” said Todd Garofano, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau. “Once NYRA [The New York Racing Association] announced that attendance would be capped at 50,000, we all turned our attention to creating and promoting viewing parties at Saratoga area bars and restaurants. Our message is that while the Travers is sold-out, Saratoga is not. We want fans to come and participate in what is a historic weekend for Saratoga. A website was created, www.2015saratogatravers.com to list and promote the viewing parties around town.”
Shimkus understood the reasons behind NYRA’s cap on attendance at the track, but said the rest of the town leaders were confident that the City could welcome many more, which is why they worked so hard to set up viewing parties.
“This is about creating an experience that people want to come back to time and again,” Shimkus said. “The cap allows the track to provide the best possible customer service to those attending, so it’s up to us to provide the best possible experience to City visitors not only to ticket holders, but for all those who can’t be there. We’re working hard locally to make sure we can accommodate everyone, that everyone has a great experience, with just the right food, the right product, and help people find hotel rooms – we are getting calls from around the world.”
Shimkus went on to say with confidence that it is not the first time the City has hosted a big crowd in Saratoga. The vast majority of businesses are locally owned by people who live here and have a sense of what they need to do to make this work. He said the process has been relatively smooth for years when it comes to preparing for crowds from a staffing perspective, food perspective, merchandise perspective, and promotional perspective.
“I don't think anyone has any idea of what it takes to host something like this,” said Shimkus. “This hasn't happened in 37 years, [Triple Crown winner]. We'll be talking about this to our grandkids. Yes, traffic is difficult, parking is difficult, getting reservations is difficult, folks might have to wait in a line, but while standing there, take a deep breath and look around and know you’ll remember this race and this moment 40 years from now. The enormity of the event will make us all a little more patient when we think about how cool this really is.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS – When Matt Cummings, 32, and his graphic design business partner, Mike Miakisz, 31, put together a logo for American Pharoah this spring; the 3-year old colt had just dominated the Arkansas Derby, a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Little did they know they were designing what would become one of the most popular t-shirts of the summer racing season.
“He was one of the best 2-year olds last year,” said Cummings, co-owner of Ascot Creative with Miakisz. “Then he had a small injury and missed the Breeders Cup. When they brought him back this year and we watched him win a couple races, we knew that was the horse.”
Cummings and Miakisz, who have known each other since grade school, are Saratoga natives with a natural love for horseracing. Both went to college for design, settled into steady careers, and Miakisz started a family, but they both wanted just a little bit more from their American Dream. So over the last couple of years, they began a small entrepreneurial venture on the side, Ascot Creative, designing apparel for horseracing fans that would feature a particular horse or stable on t-shirts, hats and other items.
“We kinda know which are the popular horses in the horseracing fan base,” said Miakisz, “so we try to reach out to their owners and set up a licensing agreement to sell merchandise with their horses and stables on it. It benefits us, the owner, the stable, and horse racing fans in general.”
The two lifelong friends had no idea when they reached out for the licensing agreement on American Pharoah that they were creating a design for the horse that would win the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years. Ascot Creative sales went up after the Kentucky Derby, then American Pharoah won the Preakness, sales went up again, and the rest is history, both for the horse and the entrepreneurs.
“There’s no comparison to what we did last year,” said Cummings. “I didn’t think going into the Kentucky Derby that we’d sell a hundred shirts, and didn’t even know what to expect. We had to come up with a new design after he won the Triple Crown, but we’re at about 600 for him and still going. Not only that, we are selling other shirt designs and hats, like Texas Red.”
The sales are all derived online at AscotCreative.com, through promotions on Facebook and Twitter. “It’s really amazing,” Cummings said. “We’ve even gotten orders from Australia, Japan and England.”
Both men feel good about the future of their design business. “This year we’ve established a relationship with some big-time owners,” said Miakisz, “which gives us some credibility with other owners, something we didn’t have before. And [American Pharoah’s] win has gotten our name out there to horseracing fans. We’ve had a great response.”
By Brendan O’Meara
For Saratoga TODAY
What this past weekend showed, if nothing else, was a shape of things to come for the $1.6 million Travers Stakes.
Could the Travers be a one-horse walkover starring American Pharoah? It may as well be because that’s what we saw by his visually impressive and comedic performance in the $1.75 million Haskell Invitational this past Sunday.
Comedic in that it was a complete joke; he made a mockery of a field of decent 3-year-olds and he did it in third gear with the brake lights glowing scarlet. His final time of 1:47.80 was made all the more impressive due to the lack of urging. If he wanted to—and that’s the thing with American Pharoah—he could have run this race in well under 1:47.
Mr. Jordan, a horse who won the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, was a pace threat in the Haskell and hung on for about 46 seconds before he was, by all accounts, eased to a canter. What he experienced on the front end was that American Pharoah breathes different air. Not every Jedi can be Yoda.
So Victor Espinoza, aboard American Pharoah, didn’t so much say, “Go” with a quarter-mile to go as “This bores me” and let the reins out a few transcendent inches. Keen Ice gave a spirited chase before Lucy pulled the football out from his outstretched foot.
In that final eighth of a mile, you could hear the gears turning: What race will American Pharoah target next? (NBC’s Kenny Rice pressed and pressed and pressed, but all he got was that ‘Would-You-Let-Me-Enjoy-This?’ look from owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert).
Saratoga-philes will cry Travers, as they are prone to do. A Mid-Summer Derby with the Kentucky Derby winner jacks up the ‘derbyness’ of the entire day. It feels more authentic and the New York Racing Association brass will, no doubt, see two cherries verging on three on the slot machine should Zayat point his van up the Northway.
Given 48 hours to think, Zayat made his motives clear: He wants Saratoga and he wants it bad.
"I have made it very clear that I want to go to the Travers," Zayat said in Ron Mitchell’s BloodHorse.com article. "We are motivated by what defines his legacy. If it were up to me, it would be the Travers. I have made my desires known to my trainer. He knows what I want."
There’s no subtext here for Baffert to read into. A trainer’s No. 1 job isn’t to train horses, it’s to placate owners, but Zayat may want to hear Baffert out if he does, in fact, want to ship somewhere south and west of Saratoga Springs.
American Pharoah has toyed with restricted company since March, so staying in his own class is like Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer facing high schoolers. Just three weeks away sits the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar against older horses and this could be the chance to release a monster on the older division.
What more can American Pharoah do against the 3-year-olds? He beat the Grade I Wood Memorial winner (Frosted) twice. He beat the Grade I Santa Anita Derby winner (Dortmund) twice. He beat the horse that set the mile record at Churchill Downs (Competitive Edge). At this point American Pharoah’s greatest competition are ghosts.
The only reason he would exclusively run against 3-year-olds again (and it would be only one more time) is out of Zayat’s charity to bring him to Saratoga.
The Pharoah is already the Horse of the Year and Champion Three-Year-Old, so what’s to prove? His only challenge over the following two or three races are against older horses. All great 3-year-olds eventually approach the mountain previously summited by older horses. The tenured elites have been waiting.
Back in 2009, a similar line of reasoning was used for the campaigning of Rachel Alexandra. After she beat her 3-year-old fillies in the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths and then in the Mother Goose by 19 1/4 lengths, what more could she have done against her class?
She also beat 3-year-old males in the Preakness and the Haskell. What more could she have done against them? The only logical step, in the spirit of competition, was the older males. It squeezed everything out of Rachel Alexandra to “raise the rafters” at the Spa, but she did it, even at the expense of her 4-year-old year.
As it stands, American Pharoah hasn’t been tested since the Kentucky Derby and he seems to be getting better, as hard as that is to believe, which makes the Travers a hard sell from a pure athletic perspective. That, and American Pharoah will scare away more horses than the ghost of Ramesses II.
The only way the Travers has much of a chance is to bump its purse up from $1.25 million to $2 million, and it struck a happy medium at $1.6 million. That will attract more victims. A purse of that size will ensure a full field instead of five or six horses running for second.
Saratoga stands to benefit from increased attendance, betting handle and patrons’ trips to the Shake Shack should American Pharoah show. It’s only fair.
“I was very surprised that Saratoga raised their purse," Zayat said. "I have not asked (racetrack representatives) for a nickel. I had zero financial discussions with them. The purse raise came as a surprise to me.”
Saratoga stands to earn that extra $350,000 back and then some.
The other argument for the Travers is the mere fact that this is the only crack a 3-year-old colt gets at it. It’s the Mid-Summer Derby, after all. The last Triple Crown winner to run in the Travers was Affirmed, but there’s no Alydar stepping into quarter-inch bends to, at the very least, make American Pharoah appear mortal.
With all his time parading around the East Coast, a trip to the Pacific Ocean is only fair to the fans out west. Something for Baffert to think about, assuming the thinking hasn’t already been done for him.
It’s too early for the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce to lace Broadway with American Pharoah banners, but in the meantime it’s worth basking in what he’s done and the hope in what remains.
Brendan O’Meara is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year, now out in paperback