SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Higher purses, nearly $2 million in capital upgrades and numerous special promotions are among the strategies planned to boost Saratoga Race Course attendance, which dipped slightly a year ago despite the large 150th anniversary of Saratoga racing celebration.
New York Racing Association executives discussed all aspects of the 2014 meet, which opens July 18, during a Monday news conference at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion on East Avenue.
Attendance totaled 867,182 last summer, its lowest point since 2009. For the past five years, crowds have been 12 percent to 15 percent below the record mark of 1,049,309 set in 2003. However, NYRA board member Charles Wait of Saratoga Springs said attendance numbers alone can be misleading.
"The local economy did really well last year," he said. "We had the highest room occupancy and highest daily average room rates ever. My guess is that it will be a strong season and that attendance will be higher than last year. The keys are a good racing product and giving fans a good experience."
Toward that end, the meet will have a record $17.45 million in stakes purses, with 15 Grade I races alone. NYRA hopes to create two nationally prominent days of racing at Saratoga by boosting the Whitney and Travers purses to $1.5 million and $1.25 million, respectively.
"The country looks to Saratoga for the best racing," said Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations. "We want to bring (more) horses here from California, Kentucky and Florida. The foundation is being set now to grow these events. We want to create more big events in New York."
NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay said Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist might race twice during the meet, and 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice is expected to compete in the Whitney.
The track will host a first-ever Saratoga Showcase Day on Sunday, Aug. 24 -- the day after the Travers -- featuring the best New York-bred horses.
The meet will have expanded media coverage as both NBC and Fox plan to cover various races.
In response to fan comments about the length of daily programs, NYRA plans to limit the number of races held.
"I'm a firm believer that more is not necessarily better," Panza said. "Nobody wants to be at the track seven or eight hours per day."
Mondays will have nine races, with 10 each on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and some Sundays. Eleven races will be held Saturdays and select Sundays.
There will be no twilight racing this year and all post times are 1 p.m. except for 11:35 a.m. on Travers Day, when 13 races will be on the card.
Steeplechase races will be held at 12:35 p.m. every Wednesday and Thursday, preceding the regular flat-track program.
Popular, longtime track announcer Tom Durkin plans to call his last race Aug. 31 so he can relax and watch the Labor Day program in his well-deserved retirement. A special day to honor Durkin will be held in late August.
NYRA has made it easier for fans to watch all of this year's action by installing 500 new high-definition televisions, 19 to 70 inches in size, throughout the clubhouse, grandstand and exterior areas, including the back yard. Also, three large new video walls will be located at the paddock, outdoor mutuel bay and near the Carousel Restaurant.
Other improvements include an enhanced sound system, 100 additional picnic tables, an expanded and improved events pavilion and Trakus -- a high-tech system that allows fans and television viewers to follow a horse's position during a race.
Of course, many people visit the racecourse for its variety of festive off-track activities. Special themed events will be held each day. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays will be dedicated to promoting New York state wines, brews and food, respectively.
A series of ethnic heritage celebrations will be held Wednesdays for people of Latino, Irish, Italian, Asian and African-American descent.
Mondays are family-fun days, and Saturdays will be dedicated to the fashion world, with firms such as Lord & Taylor on-hand.
"The goal, of course, is to attract new faces to our facilities and our sport," Kay said.
The backbone of the racing industry is the hundreds of grooms, exercise riders and hot-walkers who work long hard hours at little pay to care for the sport's equine athletes. Once again, Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson have organized a daily Backstretch Appreciation program with events scheduled every day of the meet for these people.
"This is all done by volunteers," Hendrickson said. "Not one penny has been used for administration or salaries. There is no legal obligation to do this. It is a moral obligation. We should do more. We will do more."
The 34th annual Saratoga Race Course open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 13.
For more information, log on to NYRA.com.