By Mike Kane
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Like it was putting on a comfortable pair of shoes, racing oh-so easily slipped back into Saratoga Race Course Thursday for what turned into a warm, bright, feel-good season opener.
The 10-race program that started during a brief rain storm before playing out in sunshine, did not deliver the expected storybook type of result in the featured GIII Schuylerville S., though. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, absent from America's oldest track for two seasons, watched Summer Promise (Uncle Mo), the 6-5 favorite, finish second to Just Cindy (Justify) in the six-furlong stake for 2-year-old fillies.
The New York Racing Association announced its paid attendance at 28,466 and the all-sources handle at $21,764,922. In 2021, the attendance was 27,760 and the handle was $21,935,534.
Lukas, 86, and his wife Laurie watched the replay several times in their clubhouse box after Summer Promise ended up 2 1/4 lengths behind the Clarkland Farm homebred.
“I didn't think that the bump at the middle of the stretch helped,” Lukas said. “But I don't think it affected us all that much. I think that she was just a little bit short. I think she needed the race. I was surprised because I trained on her pretty good. But this is a new surface, a deeper surface and I think that she needed to maybe be tighter.”
Wearing a big, white cowboy hat and aviator glasses as he sought his first Saratoga graded stakes win since Sporting Chance's (Tiznow) score in the 2017 GI Hopeful S., Lukas said the well-bred BC Stables filly just wasn't up to the challenge in her second career start and first venture into stakes company. Lukas said he was eyeing the Schuylerville even before she won her debut by five lengths on June 25 at Churchill Downs.
Lukas will be back in stakes company July 23 when his GI Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath (Arrogate) returns to competition in the GI Coaching Club American Oaks.
Two races before the 104th Schuylerville, named for a small town east of Saratoga Springs, favored Tarabi (First Samurai), trained by Cherie DeVaux, won the inaugural running of the Wilton. The Wilton for 3-year-old fillies was significant and drew a fair amount of attention because it was the first mile dirt race run at the track in 30 years and the first out of a chute in 50 years.
NYRA officials decided during the winter to rebuild the Wilson Chute, which was in use from 1902 through 1972. It was torn down to make room for parking. In 1992, NYRA ran 25 mile races from a starting gate on the first turn. That experiment was scuttled after the one season because of complaints that horses starting from inner post positions had an unfair advantage.
Starting from post six in the field of seven under Javier Castellano, Tarabi sat just off the pace, took the lead inside the three-sixteenths pole and prevailed by three-quarters of a length in 1:38.53.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled the runner-up Goddess of Fire (Mineshaft) and two others in the field, had no complaints.
“I thought the race went smoothly,” he said. “The fractions seemed a little slow. I wonder how accurate the time was. It seemed kind of slow for these type of fillies to be going that slow. As far as the race, the way it unfolded, it looked like a pretty fair race.”
The addition of the chute enables NYRA to schedule dirt races as a distance between seven furlongs and 1 1/8 miles and run one-mile turf races moved to the main track at the same distance.
“Mile and an eighth races, we've had a lot of success there,” Pletcher said. “I'm not going to judge it so soon. I didn't see a huge need for it, but maybe it will turn out to be a good thing. We'll see.”
During and after the fifth race, “Bones” Lafaro of Milton, NY, a small town in the Hudson Valley near Poughkeepsie, was the ringleader of a raucous crowd of approximately 50 friends and relatives who saluted their late friend, Freddy Butwell, with the Freddy B. Memorial Race.
“Me and Freddie were elementary school friends. High school friends. We grew up together and played basketball and other sports together,” Lofaro said. “Freddie passed away from complications of COVID this past year. He would always invite me to the track when he had a place up here. For the last six, seven years I'd come up. He loved to be here. I thought it was just a great way to repay him. His wife was here today. We had a great time. This is a great experience. He loved Saratoga.”
As an added bonus, Lofaro said that Butwell was a friend of a co-breeder of the winning horse, the favorite Majority Partner (Unified), trained by Jeremiah Englehart. Majority Partner paid $5.60 to win and the way the Freddy B. Memorial Race crew celebrated, it was clear that many of them had tickets on the winner.
Lofaro said that he and Butwell often came to Saratoga for opening days and that it was especially nice that the memorial race was held on the first day of the season.
Though he acknowledged being disappointed with the outcome of the Schuylerville, Lukas said he enjoyed being back at Saratoga with a big, loud crowd.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “Racing needs this enthusiasm and excitement and it only happens here. Keeneland, here and Del Mar are the racetracks where you get some kind of atmosphere. It felt like the old times.”