Storms can wreak havoc at the Spa

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TwinSpires Staff

August 18th, 2016


So what really happened at Saratoga last Saturday? I was there and it took me hours to figure it out.

The weather forecast was not good. Brutally hot and humid weather was already present and severe thunderstorms were going to hit. It was just a matter of when on Saturday.

The first three races went off without incident, with two carded for the main track. Race three went off on time at 2:08 p.m. (ET) and even though the early fractions were ridiculously slow, the final time of 1:23.84 for 2YOs going seven furlongs was quite good. 

With race four scheduled for the turf, the usual protocol would be for the tractors to come out immediately after the race is official and seal the main track since race four is scheduled to be run on the turf. This way, if it does rain between then and race five, the second division of the 2YO seven-furlong race on the dirt, the main track would be sealed and any rain would wash right off the top of it.

NYRA subscribes to three different weather forecasts so there should be no surprises, even with the unpredictable weather conditions up here. Plus, we all have high-def radar apps on our smart phones.

I was sitting in my seats between races three and four and noticed that the tractors had come out on the track and started sealing the track. No big surprise but what caught my attention was how fast the tractors were going around the track. It looked like a baseball game where the umpires are late to delay the game and the ground crew comes racing out trying to get the tarp down on the field while it is raining.

Being an inveterate observer of track maintenance, I couldn’t see how this was going to seal the track tight enough since they were going so fast. But, if they came out with the usual heavy seal, it would take much longer to get around the track and that would run the risk of the track being very unevenly sealed.

The thunderstorm cell that hit was localized and dropped a lot of water on a main track that was unsealed for the most part. Post time for race four was delayed 13 minutes on a turf course that was now downgraded from “Firm” to “Good.”

47 minutes later, race five went off and it was mess. The track was as wet as could be and the time was extremely slow. Some horses got their footing but many didn’t. The final time of 1:26.26 for seven furlongs was 2 ½ seconds slower than the first division.

Soon after, Larry Collmus came on the public address system and announced that the rest of the card was cancelled due to severe weather. What was confusing was if the weather was supposed to be so bad, why wasn’t the track being evacuated?

Even though the storm that hit before race four was long gone, and the sun came out, there was severe weather a few hours away that we were in line for. Most people stayed around and watched and bet on the Arlington Park simulcast. They would regret the decision when the next line of thunderstorms hit the area with daytime lightning I have not seen in a long time.

I talked to folks who hung around Saturday afternoon and they said it was dangerous, especially with many people hanging out and drinking at the bars or picnic tables. Once racing was cancelled, if severe weather was on the horizon, the prudent thing to do would have been to thank everyone for coming and ask that they leave. Not in a panic mode but announce that everyone needed to be out by 5 p.m., for instance.

When NYRA cancelled after race five, there were immediate suspicions that it was because they did not want to proceed for a few more races and then have to cancel halfway through the Pick Six. This was not true but at the time it seemed possible.

The NYRA press release said nothing about the jockeys not wanting to ride but later Saturday night, there were reports that they felt that the track was unsafe for race five and would not be usable the rest of the day; especially with the turf races coming off if more rain hit.

When race five was run at 3:41 p.m., it was unbearably hot. The sun was out for the next two hours and even with a perfect race track to race over, it would have been too hot for horse racing to take place. Another, more logical, reason to cancel racing.  

So, to summarize, racing was cancelled when an expected thunderstorm hit the Saratoga main track on Saturday and washed out the track. It was announced after race five that racing was cancelled due to severe weather.

The real reason was that the jockeys felt that main track was unsafe was that it was sealed too late and the early thunderstorm got into the base of it. If NYRA would have said racing was being cancelled because the jockeys felt the track was unsafe, that would open the door for the jockeys to question why it wasn’t sealed properly immediately after race three?

So, they announced it was severe weather that forced the cancellation which, in turn, begged the question why not evacuate the track? To me, either you do none or both. There was plenty of time to clear the facility before the dangerous storm hit at 6 p.m.