A Season of Triumph and Tragedy, Saratoga Meet Concluded Monday

Saratoga Race Course | Sarah Andrew


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Following a tradition that has been in place for several years, King's Tavern across the street from Saratoga Race Course was not open for business Monday, the final day of annual summer meet.

Closed on closing day.

On purpose.

While it may be a sad afternoon for the 22,097 patrons on the grounds for the last card of 2023, the Fitch brothers, who operate King's and the City Tavern on Caroline Street, use closing day at the track to pause a bit on Labor Day and celebrate. They put on a party for every member of their staff, all of whom were able to bring a guest, in late morning and then take the group over to the races.

Jason Fitch teed up “awesome” and “fantastic” to describe business at King's during the season.

That wasn't the case for the New York Racing Association. Despite unusually wet weather that did a number on total handle, NYRA reported that attendance was up 2.8% to 1,105,863, the third-highest in history. It was the eighth consecutive year that Saratoga's attendance topped one million. The average daily paid attendance was 27,642.

With 65 races washed off the turf–a 306% jump from the 16 last summer–and four cancelled due to wet weather, handle dropped 9.0%, from $878,211,963 to $799,229,288. The daily average handle was $19,980,732.

A year ago, the handle jumped $62.7 million, 7.7%, from rainy 2021 when NYRA lost 45 grass races.

For King's, Fitch said, “The weather was OK. I think the weather not being as hot helped out. Unfortunately, when it rains during the season it sucks for the track, but for us, people just get out of the rain.”

The Fitch brothers' taverns and other Saratoga businesses are likely to be packed with racing fans in early June if the New York Racing Association moves the GI Belmont S. upstate during the demolition and rebuild of Belmont Park. NYRA officials acknowledged in June that the 2025 Belmont could be held at Saratoga. On Sunday, NYRA President and CEO David O'Rourke said his company is considering running the Belmont S. in Saratoga in 2024 and 2025.

In a runaway, Irad Ortiz, Jr. was the leading jockey for the second consecutive year and fifth overall with 62 wins. His brother, Jose, was next with 37 wins.

Linda Rice tied Chad Brown for the training title with 35 victories by winning twice Monday, including the final race of the season with Lt. Mitchell (The Lieutenant). In what might be a historic bookend, Rice also won the first race of the season on July 13 with Bustin Bay (Bustin Stones).

“We won three yesterday which gave us a chance,” said Rice. “I thought it was pretty unlikely, but you never know. The day before we were second beaten a neck, fourth beaten a head. But then yesterday after winning three, I thought, 'Well, maybe we have a chance.' It's been a tremendous year. A lot of highs and lows in racing. We've all seen them and we've all experienced them. Today was a good day.”

Rice made history in 2009 when she became the first woman to win the Saratoga title. Now she has two.

“They were both really special in their own way. You never take the fun out of the first one and, of course, this is a win and a tie at the same time,” said Rice. “It's been a great year, it's been a lot of fun, there's always a little heartache in the middle and would've, could've, should'ves. But it's been a great meet.”

It was Brown's third straight title and sixth overall.

“It was a great meet and I'm proud of my team,” said Brown. “The Alabama and Saratoga Derby at the top, those were huge wins. My team persevered through the weather–we had a record number of off-the-turf races and second-places, and they were still able to grind out a tie for the win, which is amazing. Hopefully, we can continue that into the fall.”

Seth Klarman's Klaravich Stables finished on top of the owner's table with 22 victories, including the GI Albama S. with Randomized (Nyquist).

“Winning at Saratoga is always special,” said Klarman. “Winning a race that's as historically important as the Alabama will always be a highlight of my ownership career.”

Klaravich Stables now boasts 23 owners' titles at NYRA tracks, and six consecutive at Saratoga.

According to NYRA, 10.61 inches of rain fell after July and led to a soggy, sometimes grim meet. The 155th Saratoga season was irreparably damaged by the deaths of eight horses, who suffered injuries in racing, and four more who were euthanized after being injured in training. Even though more than five dozen races were taken of the turf for safety reasons, six of the eight deaths were from incidents in races that were conducted on the turf courses. One of the six on turf was believed to be a heart attack.

The two fatalities from dirt races were eerily similar: high-profile unbeaten 3-year-olds breaking down in the stretch while leading and on their way to victory in seven-furlong undercard races on the two biggest days of the meet. Maple Leaf Mel (Cross Traffic) shattered her right foreleg in the GI Test S. on Whitney Day, Aug. 5. Three weeks later, New York Thunder (Nyquist) suffered a catastrophic injury to his left foreleg in the GI H. Allen Jerkens on Travers Day.

The horrific injuries dramatically changed the atmosphere each day and diminished the reaction for White Abbario (Race Day)'s surprise win at 10-1 in the Whitney and Arcangelo (Arrogate)'s victory in the Travers.

“Triumph and tragedy could be a good way to put it,” O'Rourke said.

New York Thunder's death was the second on Travers Day. Two hours and forty minutes earlier, Nobel (Ire) (Lope de Vega {Ire}), an Irish-bred 4-year-old was injured in the gallop-out after the fifth race on turf. O'Rourke said NYRA considered cancelling the remainder of the card following the Jerkens and possibly not running the following day. He said that his team reviewed the surfaces, consulted with jockeys, trainers and veterinarians and decided that the tracks were safe. There were no serious injuries reported in the seven race days following the Travers program.

“I think a fair question would be, 'Well, what's our reaction?'” O'Rourke said about the injuries and deaths. “Over the last few years, we've leaned pretty heavily on the technology, whether it is trackers, projects going on two years now. PET scan imaging has been a discussion that's coming to fruition near-term. Of course, you have other things such as tracks. For us, it's leaning in to those type of two aspects of technology that will allow us to improve safety. We're completely focused, and more than ever motivated, to move as quickly and as prudently as possible on some of these.”

Tracking sensors are aimed at identifying changes in a horse's stride that may be the result of stress on legs or an undetected injury. PET scans will be used for deeper analysis of horses that have been flagged by vets for possibly having an issue.

NYRA will have a synthetic track at the new Belmont Park and O'Rourke said a synthetic track could be installed at Saratoga, but it would not happen in time for the 2024 season. Synthetic tracks are considered to be safer surfaces for horses. Turf horses adjust better to synthetic surfaces than dirt and there are likely to be fewer scratches when races are moved from turf to synthetic surfaces.

“You could do one here with the inner turf course and then widen the outer turf course. You'll get more lanes,” O'Rourke said. “You'll have technically less running lanes on turf, but in off-weather you wouldn't be beating up the course. So you might get more actual run out of it. And then Option B is you go with synthetic and you change out the dirt tracks. And that's something that the board is engaged on right now, that conversation.”

O'Rourke said it was not likely that the dirt track at Saratoga would be replaced by a synthetic track in the near term.

The $1.25-million Travers drew the three winners of the Triple Crown races for a showdown in August for just the fourth time in history. Forte (Violence), the 2-year-old champion, also was in the mix and was the favorite. Arcangelo, trained by Jena Antonucci for Blue Rose Farm, completed the Belmont S.- Travers double. In the three previous times, a horse that did not compete in any of the Triple Crown races prevailed.

Antonucci bucked current practices and did not give the gray colt a prep race before the Travers. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano added to his stakes record, with his seventh victory, as Arcangelo won by a length over Disarm (Gun Runner).

With the victory, Antonucci became the second woman and the first since Mary Hirsch, to win Saratoga's biggest race. She gave credit to her crew.

“Mostly gratifying for the team and for what we collectively have done,” she said. “Yes, someone has to sign the paychecks and drum the drum, but this isn't a “me” thing, it's an “us” thing. This horse is showing what the team can do.”

Antonucci said the meet was one of mixed emotions, of highs and lows.

“If anything, I hope that it heightens the responsibility of every person involved to steward the best decisions possible,” she said. “And if, through tragedy, we all feel the most exposed to do better and to grow, than that's what's going to be. I think every single person needs to make sure and do a self-check that everyone's doing their part to make it all more productive and a better outcome for everybody.”

Castellano continued with what has been a strong year with three graded-stakes wins: the Travers, the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup and the GIII Schuylerville on opening day. Veteran trainer Gary Contessa, returning to racing in New York after a stint in Delaware, managed just two wins, but they were in graded stakes, the Schuylerville and the GI Hopeful on Monday with Nutella Fella (Runhappy), who paid a whopping $111.

This is the 10th season that the Fitch brothers have operated King's. The track season is the busiest time of the year for their business. To mark the end of the exciting and tiring summer, the Fitches and their staff take the day, have a party and go to the races.

“It's bittersweet,” Jason Fitch said. “Love the meet. Love the hustle and bustle of summer. You love Travers, but you hate Travers because Travers means that summer is over.”

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