'It's a Special Place': Racing Returns to Saratoga Thursday

Saratoga | Sarah Andrew

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.-With the mighty successful prelim–the GI Belmont Stakes–now part of Saratoga's storied history, it is time to move on to the main event.

The 40-day racing season, the 156th since the first meet was staged in 1863, commences Thursday with an 11-race program at Saratoga Race Course, America's oldest sporting venue. The listed six-furlong $175,000 Schuylerville S., a graded stakes for 2-year-old fillies through last year, is the traditional opening-day feature. The first post is at 1:10 p.m.

By the time the meet concludes on Labor Day, Sept. 2, more than 400 races will have been contested on dirt and turf. The New York Racing Association has scheduled 71 stakes worth $20.75 million in purses. There are 41 graded stakes spread across the season, 18 of them at the top-level, Grade I.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, 70, has been a Saratoga regular since 1987 and has been the leading trainer nine times. Last year, with a powerful roster of stars, he won five stakes at Saratoga which helped him lock up the Eclipse Award. Mott, based in Saratoga throughout the April-November training season, said the race meet is the high point of the year for him.

“All the best racing is up here,” Mott said. “They've got good racing at different points along the way, Keeneland, Churchill, but it really all kind of comes together here. For the Midwest, and in the East Coast, I think this is the championship meet. Doesn't mean that's where all the good races are, but they have stakes almost every day here. You see a lot of good racing. A lot of good horses show up and are ready to go this time of year. And you see a lot of good 2-year-old racing, so the people that like to look into the future, you can get an indication of what might show up next year.”

The Belmont was moved to Saratoga Race Course for the first time in its history while Belmont Park is undergoing a massive makeover. The final stop in the Triple Crown series was a big hit on June 8 in a city used to major-league racing and with NYRA setting an attendance limit at 50,000, it sold out quickly. NYRA said the four-day festival drew a total attendance of 120,028 and the handle was $197.4 million.

It was a huge economic gift for merchants like Jason Fitch and his brothers, who operate King's Tavern across Union Ave. from the track and The Saratoga City Tavern on Caroline Street. This will be the Fitch brothers' 11th season at King's and Jason said having the Triple Crown race in town created a situation unlike any other.

“It was so busy for the Belmont. It felt like it felt like one track season in one day,” he said. “It was absolutely insane, but it was a good, controlled insane. It seemed like it was just good people, positive attitudes, no problems.”

In addition to the high-caliber racing, the Saratoga season includes The Jockey Club's Round Table on Thursday, Aug. 1; annual induction for the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame on Aug. 2; Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga Sale, Aug. 5-6; as well as other industry events. Jockey Joel Rosario, 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy) and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) were elected in the contemporary division in their first year of eligibility.

In 2023, Linda Rice won the last race of the meet to tie Chad Brown for the trainer's title with 35 victories. It was Brown's third-straight meet title, sixth overall and Rice's second. In recent years, Brown and 14-time champion Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher have vied for the top spot. Pletcher enters the meet with 698 victories at Saratoga with a record 44 Grade I scores.

Five-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. won his fifth Saratoga riding title last summer with 62 victories, 25 more than his brother Jose.

As usual, weather conditions will have a huge role in the meet's business success. Rainy weather last summer forced NYRA to move 65 races off the turf, leading to dozens of scratches, and handle fell 9.9% from the 2022 figure when only 16 races were switched to the dirt.

While there is at least one Grade I race on each of the eight Saturdays, the $1.25-million GI Travers Stakes on Aug. 24 and the $1-million GI Whitney Stakes on Aug. 3 are the marquee events of the season and anchor huge stakes programs.

In 2023, there was the rare meeting of the winners of the Triple Crown races in the Travers. Belmont winner Arcangelo (Arrogate) prevailed in the Travers, which helped him clinch the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award. It is possible that the three race winners could all be in the Travers field again this summer. GI Preakness S. winner Seize the Grey (Arrogate) and Belmont winner Dornoch (Good Magic) are on course for the 1 1/4-miles test. GI Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan (Goldencents), the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races this year, was given time off after his eighth-place finish in the Belmont. He recently returned from his time at the farm to trainer Kenny McPeek's barn at Churchill Downs.

“He's on a slow-return right now,” McPeek said. “We're not in any hurry with him. He had a hard winter-spring campaign. We're kind of regrouping with him. No decisions on where he is next.”

McPeek did not rule out the Travers, but suggested it would be a reach to have him ready.

“We'd like to think we could get him back for the Travers,” McPeek said, “although I'm a little worried about running in that race off a layoff, but we'll see.”

McPeek said that the Travers remains a possibility for his star 3-year-old filly Thorpedo Anna (Fast Anna), who he said “is begging to run again.” The GI Kentucky Oaks and GI Acorn Stakes winner is scheduled to make her next start in the GI Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 at Saratoga.

“And then we're open on what happens after that, either the [GI] Alabama or the Travers,” McPeek said.

During the COVID-disjointed 2020 season, McPeek won the Preakness with Swiss Skydiver after her victory in the Alabama. He may do something similar with Thorpedo Anna, the only 3-year-old in the NTRA top 10.

“Let's see how she runs in the Coaching Club,” he said. “We don't even nominate until the other side of it. If she were ultra-impressive in that, yes, I'm going to seriously consider the Travers. But if she has to work at it to beat the fillies, or it depends on who is headed to the Travers. But, we need to get through the Coaching Club first. We don't want to put the cart before the horse, right?”

Trainer Danny Gargan secured his first Grade I victory when Dornoch won the Belmont at 17-1 over Mindframe (Constitution) and favorite Sierra Leone (Gun Runner). Gargan is planning to run Dornoch in the GI Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 20, and wants to continue on to the Travers.

“I think this horse can win the Travers, if we get the right post and the right set-up,” Gargan said. “He won the Belmont.”

Gargan said that when Dornoch turned in a bullet work on June 27, his first breeze after the Belmont, he realized that the colt was ready for more big tests.

“We all know he is a little lazy by himself, but the way he breezed was impressive,” Gargan said. “We'll see. I've always been confident in him. I've never ducked anybody. I've never gone anywhere. I want everyone to show up for that. I want them all there.”

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas–who will turn 89 on closing day–has the Travers on his schedule for Seize the Grey. He will prep in either the Haskell or the GII Jim Dandy on July 27 and Lukas said the colt is showing him he is ready for the next section of the season.

“He's doing absolutely terrific,” Lukas said. “He's one of those horses that rebounds from his races beautifully. He jumps right back into the program. And because of some of the breeding farms, he just had a complete physical and passed it with A-plus marks. He should have a really strong fall. He really should. He's in a position to step up. Being an Arrogate, I've found that the Arrogates are kind of late developers. They seem to get better as they get a little bit older.”

Lukas has been touting his 2-year-olds this year and nine of the 23 horses he brought to Saratoga from Kentucky are juveniles. His first 2-year-old runner will be BC Stable's Innovater (Authentic) Saturday in the seventh, a maiden special weight race. One of his 2-year-old runners last summer was Seize the Grey.

In 1984, Lukas made his first appearance at Saratoga and won the Alabama with Life's Magic and the GI Spinaway Stakes with Tiltalating. He competed every year through 2019 at the Spa, but skipped 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic and a downturn in the quality of is stable. He returned two years ago with some new owners and more talent. According to Equibase, he has won 264 races. Twenty seven of his 67 graded stakes wins have been Grade I.

“I find this meet a little bit more refreshing,” he said. “I come up here and I've got them all right there in front of me. The last few years, we tried to keep it under 35 or so and I find it kind of refreshing. I enjoy the Oklahoma track and the long trip from my barn down to the main track and so forth, riding with those babies.

“The thing I think that stimulates you up here is you bring your 2-year-olds up that you're high on. We didn't bring every 2-year-old, but we brought the ones we think are what I call Saratoga-worthy. That in itself stimulates you to get up and get going and get out there every day. I don't want to say it's a working vacation, because it's not that. My wife and I don't go fishing on Lake George or waterskiing or to a ballet or anything. We just train horses, but it still seems to be a little bit refreshing.”

Fitch, the co-owner of King's Tavern, said this has already been a weird summer with a hectic week, followed by three quiet weeks before racing resumes. Fitch said he is excited to get rolling again and embrace the season.

“I'm not a big horse guy. I love and appreciate what the track is,” he said. “I'm not a gambler, but I enjoy it for the other reasons, just what it brings to our economy, what it represents to our community. It's a special place.”

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