Submitted by Gasper Moschera on Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM
All systems go for 150th anniversary meet
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – A meet that doesn’t really need any more pomp and pageantry will have its cup runneth over this summer as Saratoga celebrates its 150th anniversary beginning Friday.
Unlike the first race meet in 1863, which lasted only four days and had a total of eight races, the 144th Saratoga season is set for 40 days through Labor Day and likely will consist of approximately 400 races.
There will be numerous events ontrack and around town to commemorate Saratoga’s sesquicentennial, but the focus of what happens here over the next seven weeks should truly center around what happens ontrack.
Led by reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who arrived here Wednesday from Kentucky, many of the top horses in training are scheduled to compete here this summer. Wise Dan is likely to run in the Grade 2, $500,000 Fourstardave on Aug. 10, though trainer Charlie LoPresti has not ruled out the Grade 1 Whitney on dirt Aug. 3.
The winners of all three Triple Crown races this year – Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow, and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice – are aiming for a meeting in the $1 million Travers on Aug. 24. If that happens, it would be the first time since 1982 that three separate winners of Triple Crown races met in the Travers. Breeders’ Cup winners Royal Delta and Fort Larned also are here and expected to run during the meet.
Eight of the country’s top 10 riders by mount earnings will be part of the jockey colony. Twenty-one of the country’s top 25 trainers in purse money won have stalls at Saratoga this summer.
“I’m excited – it feels like there’s a lot of energy this year,” said P.J. Campo, the New York Racing Association’s vice president and director of racing. “Aside from a couple of guys who never come, you have every guy you’d want up there.”
In 2012, Saratoga averaged 22,256 fans, $3.2 million in ontrack handle and $14.7 million in all-sources handle, numbers that were up significantly from 2011.
“At this point, we haven’t talked about what we expect the handle to be,” new NYRA President and Chief Executive Chris Kay said Wednesday. “Hope it to be better than last year . . . The way we can do it right now is focus on making sure our operations are as flawless as possible every day.”
A heat wave has engulfed upstate New York, and the opening-day forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-90s. On Wednesday, Kay said there was “no intention of canceling opening day. It’s warm, but we’ve had warm days here in the past. We’re prepared for it.”
Early in the week, low levels of chlorine were detected in the water at Saratoga Race Course, creating some concern at the state Department of Health. On Wednesday, NYRA said levels were back within an acceptable range, and that it is no longer an issue.
Todd Pletcher has won nine Saratoga training titles, including the last three. In 2011, he set a meet record for wins with 38, and last year, he won 23 juvenile races as part of a 36-win season.
“It’s always an exciting time of the year for us,” Pletcher said. “We enjoy the racing here, the competition’s stiff, a lot of 2-year-olds getting ready to run. It’s always exciting to see what you have for the future. At the same time, you come in knowing it’s very difficult to win races here. We have a well-balanced stable, good 3-year-olds, older horses; then you look at the races you’ll be running in, and they’re hard races to win.”
Chad Brown won 29 races last summer, a total that would have won virtually all but five of the previous 144 meets.
“I’ve always taken the approach where each meet we – me and my staff – try to better the meet before,” Brown said. “We set the bar pretty high last year, winning 29 races. For our own staff, we were thrilled doing that. So, what’s the goal? Win 30 races. I’m not saying we’re going to do it, but that’s our goal.”
Brown’s quest may be aided by the fact that he has a lot of young horses for owner Ken Ramsey, who has announced his intentions to be the leading owner this summer, like he was in 2008 and 2009. Mike Repole has won the last three owner’s titles.
Ramsey set records for wins at Keeneland (25) and Churchill (32) this year.
“Why not continue on to Saratoga?” Ramsey said. “I’d like to pull off the win up there for the 150th; it’s going to be a very special meeting.”
In addition to Brown, Ramsey has horses with Wesley Ward and Mike Maker, both of whom will have sizeable strings in Saratoga this summer. Tom Amoss, Randy Morse, John Shirreffs, and Leo Azpurua are among the new outfits at Saratoga. Wayne Catalano, Al Stall, Eddie Kenneally, and Ian Wilkes appear stocked to do well here.
If there is one disappointing note entering Saratoga, it’s the fact that jockey Ramon Dominguez won’t be participating. Dominguez, who set a record for wins by a jockey at a Saratoga meet with 68 in 2012, was forced to retire due to a head injury suffered in a spill at Aqueduct in January.
Javier Castellano, who had the most wins at Belmont (72), and Joel Rosario, who set a record for wins at Keeneland and was the leading money earner at Churchill and Belmont Park, top the list of contenders to be leading rider this summer. The regular New York cast – including Jose Lezcano, John Velazquez, Junior Alvarado, Irad Ortiz Jr., and Luis Saez – will be joined in the room by Shaun Bridgmohan, coming off his first Churchill title, Rosie Napravnik, Robby Albarado, and Alan Garcia. Garcia, now riding in Kentucky, was Saratoga’s leading rider in 2008.
There will be 53 traditional stakes – 18 of which are Grade 1s – offered this summer, highlighted by the $1 million Travers. That Aug. 24 card also will include the Test, King’s Bishop, and Ballston Spa.
The Alabama on Aug. 17 could go a long way in determining the 3-year-old filly championship if Close Hatches, Dreaming of Julia, Princess of Sylmar, and Fiftyshadesofhay make it to the race.
NBC and the NBC Sports Network will broadcast seven shows from Saratoga, beginning with the July 27 airing of the Grade 1 Diana and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.