Sun Sets on Record-Breaking Saratoga Season

Irad Ortiz and Angel Cordero | Sarah Andrew


SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY-With a five-word quip, New York Racing Association president and CEO Dave O'Rourke provided plenty of context about the record-setting 154th season of racing in Saratoga.

“It didn't rain much, huh?” O'Rourke said.

Indeed. Though the 40-day meet concluded Monday on cool, dark, sodden afternoon where jackets and umbrellas were needed, almost all of the programs at Saratoga Race Course were run on tracks listed as “fast” and “firm.” When the final grass race of the closing day card was moved to the main track, it was just the 16th of the season. In 2021, NYRA lost 45 turf races in 2021 and still set handle marks.

“Off-the-turf is always a very important metric when you're measuring handle and trying to understand why it was up or down or what would happen to field size,” O'Rourke said. “This is one of those years where you get kind of lucky where it stayed dry when we needed it to.”

During what was an unusually parched summer in upstate New York, NYRA recorded a record all-sources handle of $878,211,963 and reported on-track attendance at 1,075,586. The total handle was a 7.7% jump from last year and it was the seventh-straight time–excluding fan-free 2020–that Saratoga cracked one million in paid attendance. The daily average handle was $21,955,299, the highest in history, and average attendance was 26,890.

NYRA said Saratoga's on-track handle, which includes New York residents using NYRA Bets, was up 10.5% to $152,274,728.

A total of 417 races were staged: 218 on the dirt and 199 on turf. The average field size was 7.8 runners, up a tick from the 7.7 last year.

According to the National Weather Service in Albany, there were 22 days during the summer when the daily high temperature topped 90 degrees, twice the annual norm, and rainfall was five inches below average. Many of those 90+ days were during the racing season.

While the ancient course, which has been operating on the south side of Union Ave. since 1864, was baking, Chad Brown captured his second-straight training title and fifth in six years with 42 winners, and Irad Ortiz, Jr. secured his fourth jockey championship with 55 wins.

“The weather cooperated and the fans came out in force early,” O'Rourke said. “And that was a little eye opening, actually, how busy, we were in July this year, compared to history. It usually took a little while for us to ramp up to that. It feels like the pandemic is over, and everything's back to normal.”

From the opening day on July 14, 87-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas was a compelling story. Missing for two seasons at Saratoga due to Covid-19 and a lack of quality in his stable, Lukas mounted a successful renaissance tour. His star, GI Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath (Arrogate) was second in both of her starts, but he scored in the GIII Adirondack S. with Naughty Gal (Into Mischief) and six other races Lukas matched his 2009 figure and his $774,927 in earnings were second only to his $1,086,545 in 2013 in the last 20 years at the Spa. Lukas added to his young, promising stable with five yearling purchases at the Fasig-Tipton sale.

“I was pretty optimistic that we had the right 2-year-olds,” Lukas said. “I was disappointed in a couple of them, but, generally speaking, they lived right up to what we thought they would do. You're never sure up here because it's so competitive.”

Known as the “Graveyard of Favorites” since the early 1930s, Saratoga claimed a few more can't-miss superstars this summer. Topping the list was champion Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music), who won the GI A.G. Vanderbilt H.–for a Spa record third year winning a Grade I–but was defeated at 1-9 by Cody's Wish (Curlin) in the GI Forego S. At 1-5, War Like Goddess (English Channel) suffered just the third loss of her 11-race career with Bill Mott in the GII Flower Bowl Sept. 3.

The season started with huge early numbers and kept rolling. The GI Whitney S. Aug. 6 drew 39,478 and the program's total handle was $40.2 million. On Aug. 27, the GI Runhappy Travers S., always the marquee race of the season, attracted an on-track crowd of 49,672, the most since Keen Ice (Curlin) upset American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) in 2015. The total handle was a Travers record $55.6 million.

“What's been exciting about the meet is the crowds,” said Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher said. “It's been very enthusiastic. Business has been robust, and it's exciting that people are coming out and enjoying horse racing. I think it bodes well for the future.”

Pletcher, a 14-time winner of the Saratoga training title, finished second to Brown with 37 wins. It was the 12th-straight season that they were 1-2 in the standings. Five of Pletcher's six graded stakes victories came in Grade I races: Nest (Curlin) swept the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama in showdowns with Secret Oath that turned into routs; Life is Good (Into Mischief) added to his sterling reputation with a gate-to-wire score in the Whitney; champion Malathaat (Curlin) handled a strong field in the Personal Ensign S.; and Forte (Violence) wrapped up the season Monday in the Hopeful S.

“I couldn't be more pleased with the meet we've had,” Pletcher said before winning his fourth Hopeful. “If you come in here and you get the opportunity to win races like the Whitney and Alabama and Coaching Club, Personal Ensign, you've got to be pretty happy. You just hope that things continue to go well.”

Brown, who grew up in nearby Mechanicville, was the Saratoga runner-up for five years before topping Pletcher in 2016. He also won titles in 2018 with a record 46 victories, 2019 and again last summer. Three of his nine graded-stakes victories were in Grade I events: In Italian (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}) in the Diana S., where he saddled the top four finishers; Jack Christopher (Munnings) in the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial S.; Goodnight Olive (Ghostzapper) in the Ballerina S. Typically, Brown was tough on the turf with a record of 30-20-24 from 131 starters, a 56% in-the-money rate.

“Overall, a really strong meet,” Brown said. “I'm just proud of the horses and my staff, all my co-workers, they did a great job. We won a lot of races, but we won some really big ones that really made the meet particularly strong for us, winning the Grade I's, the Diana, the Allen Jerkens, and the Ballerina. And we had a nice win in the [GII] Flower Bowl the other day [with Virginia Joy (Ger) (Soldier Hollow {GB}). Then we were able to debut some good-looking 2-year-olds, which is always exciting.

“Top to bottom from the 2-year-olds to the sort of workman-like horses in the middle that won some allowance races and a few claiming races and such and then up into the stakes races, I think, in all divisions we were competitive.”

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Assmussen's powerful stable was a force, winning the GII Jim Dandy S. and the GI Travers S. with Epicenter (Not This Time), who climbed to the top of the 3-year-old male division, and the Vanderbilt with Jackie's Warrior.

Ortiz started the season winning the GIII Schuylerville S. aboard Just City (Justify) on opening day and completed his campaign with a triumph in the GI Hopeful S. on closing day with Forte. He won eight other graded stakes at the meet, four of them Grade I's, and took the title by 15 victories over Flavien Prat and Luis Saez.

“It means a lot,” Ortiz said. “It's one of the best meets in the world. Every single day the crowds show up and they show so much respect to the jockeys. Coming back after the race, kids and all the people are calling your name and asking for goggles and autographs. That makes it so special. That makes it different than anywhere else. It means a lot. It's a lot of hard work. A lot of dedication. I have to thank the owners and the trainers for the big support.”

Louisville-based trainer Phillip Bauer, 37, did not win any graded stakes, but he had the best Saratoga season of his career, winning with 6 of 13 starters for Rigney Racing LLC. The six wins equaled his total of wins for the six previous seasons he competed at Saratoga. He had a win rate of 46% and was in the money with 54% of his starters.

“Pretty unbelievable,” Bauer said. “We came up here, obviously, with intentions of being competitive, but you never anticipate something like this. It's been a lot of fun.”

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