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Saratoga in decline?

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- The town has grown since the census of 2000, when 26,186 people lived in the postcard setting known simply as, "The Spa," and a fair amount of the growth spurt is related directly to the popularity of racing here.

There are other economic forces at work here. The same things that drew Victorian-age aristocracy to Saratoga have resulted in a modern wave of high-net-value people building lavish mansions in the surrounding countryside that stand in contrast to the baronial 19th Century residences, some still summer homes, some converted to condominium apartments, that line North Broadway and Union Avenue.

Saratoga is home to 102 restaurants and bars, second, per-capita, to San Francisco. The racetrack is used for training from April until November. The city has developed a convention and conference traffic that spans the calendar. It is the summer residence of the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra. Skidmore College is here and dozens of colleges are within a short drive. The U.S. Navy has personnel stationed at a landlocked training facility and the government-stimulated growth of Albany to the south has initiated the inevitable domino effect. A town like Saratoga is a great place to raise children. It was listed by CNN last year among the nation's best places to live.

Still, the best extended race meeting staged anywhere in the United States, though only six weeks-long, is Saratoga's raison d'être and the economic spine of the city and the sport in New York.

For the first time in at least the last three decades, there is evidence that Eastern racing's summertime idyll is not bulletproof. The New York Racing Association is still running the trademark if time-worn TV spot that opens with Tom Durkin, binoculars poised, saying: "It is now post time … and, party time."

The party, if not quite over, is muted.

There is an ample supply of available summer living accommodations not rented in advance of the 140th meeting, now a week-old. Bribery is not required of those who desire a table for lunch on the racetrack's dining terrace. Betting receipts are down an astounding $13.8 million – in six days-- from last year's opening week. Attendance at the racetrack is down by 45,517. The city's restaurateurs, freshly printed menus stacked in wait for the summer crush of free-spending racing folk, preside over half-empty dining rooms.

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. 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.

Those who have made Saratoga the economic bonanza that the New York Racing Association and the local Chamber of Commerce have enjoyed for so long may have reached the limit of their capacity and willingness to endure wanton price gouging. The current economic downturn reflected in financial markets, rising gasoline prices and near-term concern over recession is being felt here for the first time and exactly the wrong time for NYRA and the local business community.

NYRA, seldom of late blessed with a sense of timing or an understanding of its core customer, decided this year to raise prices at all levels of seating, some more than threefold, hardly a stimulus to attendance. Churchill Downs and the hoteliers of Louisville may get away with this sort of thing for a weekend in May, but the Saratoga meeting is six-weeks-long and though no one comes to the Spa unaware of the prevailing price of the experience, the number of people willing to submit passively to robbery is diminished. The stark evidence is their absence.

The decline in business is not limited to the live audience. Off-site wagering is in decline in lockstep with on-track figures. Even the Breeders' Cup Challenge on Saturday, four stakes, three of which were Grade I races that brought Ginger Punch out of the barn and saw the venerable Commentator win his second Whitney Handicap, failed to stem even for an afternoon the steady, week-long slide in wagering.

The worst may be yet to come. The third week of this meeting looks like something more suitable to Aqueduct in February than Saratoga in August.

On that Saturday, Aug. 9, the featured race is the $100,000 Yaddo Handicap for fillies and mares bred in New York, one of four state-bred restricted stakes that NYRA somehow sees as a racing product strong enough to hold up in the middle of its showcase meeting. Not at these prices. Not here.

Nevertheless, Saratoga remains the very soul of American racing, a meeting that demands the attention of the sport's best, both two and four-legged, a unique place and setting steeped in history that no amount of profiteering or dim management vision can possibly spoil. NYRA and the local business community will take their lumps here this summer in what has the potential and momentum to be a trainwreck. The business disaster, like the prevailing crisis in the financial and credit markets -- the story of Saratoga 2008 -- is only beginning to unfold. We have yet to find the bottom.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.