In any case, there are six other stakes events on the program, named for some of New York’s famous people and landmarks. A total of 70 horses will compete in the seven features, virtually a race for each division.
Almost since its inception, Showcase Day has been a handle leader at Belmont Park, many years finishing second and third only to Belmont Stakes day and when the course hard by the Cross Island Parkway played host to the Breeders’ Cup.
The attraction then, as now, is the large fields, somewhat of a novelty a few decades ago but now fairly routine since the current racing department has emphasized turf and claiming events, those races for which every manner of condition is thrown together in a kind of equine omelet.
Today’s featured Empire Classic is open to all horses aged 3 and older, and nearly half the field has some kind of chance to land the lion’s share of the $250,000 pot. But most of the money, deservedly, will land on one of the two favorites, either Lunar Victory (8-5) or Saratoga Snacks (9-5).
The former is most deserving since he’s accomplished more. Trained by Bill Mott, he is owned by Juddmonte International, who earlier in the day will fry much larger fish across the pond when Frankel, bred by Juddmonte, tries to make it 14-for-14 lifetime and 10 Group 1s before calling it a sensational career.
As for Lunar Victory, only 1-for-8 in Europe for John Gosden, he finished second in the slop at Aqueduct, his American debut, then won five straight including the Evan Shipman in July at Saratoga Race Course, before stumbling at the start and finishing second an overnight stakes at Belmont last month. Mott believes he’ll make amends.
“He’s coming into the race good. Our horse seems to do quite well at a mile and an eighth,” said the trainer, referencing the 5-year-old’s 2-for-2 slate at the trip.
But it’s Saratoga Snacks who’s more intriguing on several levels. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to put trainer Gary Sciacca in Hall of Fame Mott’s league. A good year for Sciacca is when his winning percentage breaks into double digits, but he’s his moments.
It was 20 years ago and Sciacca trained a brilliant New York-bred filly named Saratoga Dew. She was by Cormorant, one of the foundation sires of the New York breeding program, and from an In Reality mare, Super Luna.
After winning her third straight race without defeat in that 3-year-old season, Sciacca tested the waters and ran Saratoga Dew back in 12 days and she took her fourth straight, the Comely Stakes, her first graded race.
After returning to stake-bred competition, winning the Hyde Park, she shipped to Monmouth for the G2 Post Deb and suffered her first defeat in her sixth career run.
Following her Monmouth disappointment, she returned to state-bred company, winning the New York Oaks at Finger Lakes. Sciacca used the upstate Oaks to get her ready for Saratoga, where she became a star by winning the storied G1 Alabama.
Back at Belmont, she won the G1 Gazelle then met her elders and beat them in the G1 Beldame. There were high hopes when they sent her to Gulfstream for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff three weeks later. Disappointingly, she finished 12th and never raced again.
So Sciacca can train a good New York-bred and it looks like he has one in Saratoga Snacks, owned by the August Dawn Farm, the nom-de-race of two-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Parcells.
Funny how when Parcells won that first Super Bowl he did it with what he referred to as his “lunch pail guys.” They were a bunch of no-names then. Then just came to work every day and did their jobs; just ask the favored Buffalo Bills.
Saratoga Snacks’ record is eerily reminiscent of Saratoga Dew. He has won four of five career starts and will be seeking his fifth straight win on Saturday afternoon. He defeated open class milers here Sept. 15, his second win over the track.
“He’s got himself together,” Sciacca told a NYRA press staffer this week. “He’s a big, good-looking horse [and] he’s hitting everything right. He’s going to be tough. He’s going to bring a good race.”
David v Goliath? Lunch pails over fine china? Well that’s one of the underappreciated features of this game when, on any given Saturday, a lunch pail guy can upset royalty.