We are at a critical juncture relating to the management of the Saratoga Race Course. Management and control of the facilities may change hands after over 50 years as the franchise for operation of New York State horseracing is up for renewal in 2007. Global and national competition will result in increased investment to modernize and expand the track facilities. Ownership of the facilities is in question, and the answer to the question will determine the oversight of changes to the historic setting. The threat to the Saratoga Race Course lies in the uncertainty of these various shifts.
Thoroughbred racing is big business. New York racing faces competition from tracks across the country and around the globe. While a basic level of maintenance has kept the Race Course in good working order, investments have not been made to ensure that the Race Course keeps pace with improvements in racing technology. For example, Polytrack and other synthetic surfaces are now available that make racing safer for horses; Saratoga’s track needs this new technology. Advances in gaming and communications technology are likely to be implemented. The approach to modernization will determine whether this significant historic and cultural resource is preserved or destroyed.
If good intentions were sufficient to guarantee the preservation of this unique and valuable historic and cultural site, there would be no threat to Saratoga Race Course. A comparison to Churchill Downs reveals the real threat to Saratoga. Churchill Downs, built in 1883, is recognizable to millions by its graceful twin spires. Surely everyone associated with Churchill Downs recognizes the economic value of the architectural setting. Yet, in the recent modernization and expansion program completed in 2005, two massive structures were added on either side of the beloved spires to house luxury boxes, new restaurants, catering facilities and other new amenities. As a result, the twin spires, the iconic architectural feature of this historic race course, are dwarfed and rendered visually irrelevant.
The essential character of Saratoga Race Course is the composite of historic buildings, landscapes and traditions. The threat to the Race Course lies not only in the wholesale demolition of the Grandstand. Rather, it is small incremental changes, none of which alone would be considered a significant impact – but the aggregate of which presents the greatest threat. If the new management is not well-grounded in its history, then even with the best of intentions, there is a high likelihood of small, inappropriate changes with significant and negative cumulative impact on the character of Saratoga Race Course.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA), has asserted ownership of the three track facilities in the State, Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. The State refutes this claim, and the question of ownership is now for the courts to decide. The question of ownership determines the legal protection of the Race Course as an historic and cultural resource. We need look no further than the recent expansion of the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway facility to understand the need for local participation in the oversight of building programs at the Race Course. The Gaming and Raceway successfully asserted that the City of Saratoga Springs did not have authority to review or approve its expansion plans because the Racino must get permits from the New York State Lottery; therefore they are a state agency.
If the property is privately owned, local historic zoning regulations will apply. Then, the Saratoga Springs Design Review Commission will provide review and approve any alterations to the historic buildings and new construction at the Race Course. If State-owned, then only State Historic Preservation Act reviews will be done by the State Historic Preservation Office, and there will be no opportunity to block inappropriate changes.