Is it me or does the 155th year of Saratoga Racetrack feel a bit different this time around?
Let’s start with the weather – ranging from a typical hot beach day to the humidity of a rain forest to well, dark and stormy, the precipitation has wreaked havoc on the first 22 days of racing. Whitney weekend saw the Fasig-Tipton sponsored stakes – the Waya and Lure cancelled and moved to the following weekend due to steady rain the day and night before and then sporadic thunderstorms that delayed racing during Saturday’s card. The Lure found the sod the following Saturday, but the Waya eventually was run on the dirt last Sunday. As it did last year, the Fourstardave card experienced torrential rain, softening up the grass and delaying racing, again.
With all the race changes, some coming late in the card, multi-race bettors had to scrap plans for Pick 5s or amend Pick 4 plays. On two separate occasions the final race was switched from turf to dirt after the Pick 5 sequence began giving Pick 5 and 4 players alive to the final race, “All” horses left running, providing meager returns.
Harkening back to opening day, I wilted, hoping for shade to arrive in my camper’s chair parked in the grassy area adjacent to the paddock. Thankfully, the western movement of the sun tossed shade first on me, then on my first Pick 5 attempt of the meet. Alive through the first four races, my two,fifth race picks ran second to last and last. This sent me into a betting tailspin that lasted the first three weeks of the meet. Sampling some tweets during this time, I knew I was not alone in my ineptitude.
Speaking of unkind breaks, trainer Todd Pletcher, usually sure-handed and successful with 2-year-olds has only one winner from 17 juvenile starters and just as remarkably, a mere three in-the-money finishes from those same starters. Yikes! The last three years Pletcher’s averaged 25% winners with 2-year-olds. Barn visitors note a dour mood at the beautifully groomed Pletcher stables on the Oklahoma Training Track side.
Outside his 2-year-old slide, Pletcher stands second in the training standings with 14, which pales to Chad Brown’s win total of 25. Brown has the most Spa starters with 84 entrants so far. Bettors and fellow trainers seem to have to deal with two to three Brown starters on grass races at every level. Surprisingly, the rain and off the turf affairs haven’t affected the hometown boy looking for his second Saratoga training title.
Trainer Steve Asmussen, usually a slow starter and strong finisher in the win column, came out firing taking 11 races in the first 17 days, helping first call rider, Ricardo Santana Jr. (13) gather up double digit wins and a brief stint at the top of the jockey standings. Order has been returned over the course of the last week, which saw leading rider through week three – Luis Saez (23) – fall to the third and Irad Ortiz (29) and Javier Castellano (24) take the two top spots. Right behind them is Jose Ortiz (18), who late into week three had only a handful of wins, toiling near the bottom of the standings despite strong mounts. Well, he got back to his winning ways, quickly closing out the first half of the meet.
As far as the horses, there have been some standout performances, led by graded stakes wins from New York-breds. Diversify expanded his graded stakes resume taking the prestigious Grade 1 Whitney Stakes and putting his stamp on taking the wide-open Breeders’ Cup Classic in the fall. As he did last out, the 5-year-old son of Bellamy Road, used his sharp early speed for a tactical advantage all the way around the track and moved his lifetime earnings just a shade under $2 million.
The Grade 1 Fourstardave winner and fellow New Yorker, Voodoo Song, picked up right where he left off, remaining a perfect 5-for-5 on the Spa turf courses dating back to last season. His steady progression for trainer Linda Rice through the allowance and graded stakes company to now Grade 1 winner makes the 4-year-old a formidable presence for turf milers through the rest of the season. The short, but classy Fourstardave field was left in its tracks, as Voodoo Song cut strong early fractions before holding off a late charge from Delta Prince in the final yards of the race.
For me the race of the meet so far was the Grade 1 Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 7 furlongs. Separationofpowers and Mia Mischief shook off disappointing results in the Victory Ride when they were a neck apart for fourth and fifth, respectively. This time around they put on a ding-dong stretch duel in which neither filly refused to yield with Chad Brown-trainee, Seperationofpowers ultimately prevailing by a hard fought neck.
Here’s the beauty of Saratoga, you still have a few weeks left to bet, cheer, and score. It’s never easy when most of the best horses in the country all converge in one spot for a short six-week meet. Toss in the regulars on the NYRA-circuit gunning for that rare upstate win and you have fields worth betting, world class horses worth cheering and intriguing human connections that all make Saratoga the most interesting and beautiful place to be from late July to Labor Day.
Who knows what the final days of Saratoga will bring? An early Kentucky Derby hopeful in well, the Hopeful Stakes, or the resurgence of Champion Good Magic, taking on an almost brand new supporting cast of 3-year-olds including the wonderful filly, Wonder Gadot in the Midsummer Derby, the Travers Stakes. Will Pletcher return to his two-year-old winning ways? Will the Brothers Ortiz go 1-2 in the jockey standings and can Brown hold off any and all training comers?
No matter, like many of you, I’ll be keeping my eye on Saratoga’s remaining days before having to start the yearlong countdown the day after Labor Day all over again.
Photo of Voodoo Song courtesy of NYRA