For all its management’s concern about how to maintain the quality standards that have made it America’s premier racing product (the horse shortage threatens the condition book, the handicap division is weak and three-year-olds aren’t up to the Travers), the Spa still has its two-year-old racing program. When the historic track opens for the 143rd time this upcoming weekend, it will host three graded stakes, of which two are for two-year-olds.
Bookending Saturday’s Grade 1 TVG Coaching Club American Oaks for three-year-old fillies on Saturday will be the Grade 3 Schuylerville for two-year–old fillies on Friday and the Grade 2 Sanford for two-year-old colts on Sunday. Five additional graded stakes for juveniles are scheduled to complete the meet. Seventy races for maiden two-year-olds are being written for Saratoga’s 40 days and, rightfully so, NYRA’s publicity department is trumpeting this phase of the operation over the tracks more established features.
Triple Crown racing has become the barometer used to identify the best horses in the three-year-old division, horse racing’s glamour division, and although Saratoga two-year-olds ran in abundant numbers in these classics, they fared merely adequately.
Mucho Macho Man, third in his second career start at the Spa, ran third in the Kentucky Derby, sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont. Brilliant Speed, a dismal seventh against Mucho Macho Man in the race that he ran at Saratoga, was sixth in the Derby and third in the Belmont. Stay Thirsty, twelfth in the Derby and second in the Belmont, won upstate in his second race and finished second in the Hopeful. Astrology, third in the Preakness, was third at Saratoga in his maiden endeavor and won the next time out.
What one might say about the other Saratoga starters of 2010 with 2011 Triple Crown history – Santiva, Soldat, Derby Kitten, King Congie and Isn’t He Perfect – is that they were okay, nothing more. Two Triple Crown duds, namely Santiva and Soldat, performed well at the Spa, but the rest finished up the track everywhere. In all, there were 31 individual Triple Crown starters combined and nine of them had Saratoga in their PPs, 29 percent in total. Of those nine, three were winners at Saratoga. None got roses, black-eyed Susans or carnations.
Only two of the last dozen Kentucky Derby winners had Saratoga experience. Among the 19 2011 Derby starters, six were seen at Saratoga. Of the Preakness’s 14, there were four. Of the Belmont’s dozen, there were five. Considering how young horses can’t take the grind in the same way they used to, and considering the early drop-out rate that they’ve established, you’d think fewer would make it that far, and you’d think the two-year-old program at Saratoga would suffer. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.
Five years ago, Saratoga produced an almost identical record in terms of its two-year-olds and Triple Crown matters. In 2006, there were 31 unique starters in the three Triple Crown races combined and six raced at Saratoga (19 percent). Of the six Saratoga runners, two were winners (33 percent). Ten years ago, in 2001, there were 25 unique starters and six raced at Saratoga (24 percent). Of the six to run at Saratoga, two won (33 percent). Thirty years ago, in 1981, the numbers were slightly different, but equally impressive – 16 percent of the Triple Crown horses raced at Saratoga and 60 percent of those won.
In the past four runnings of the Triple Crown series, 30 individual horses have finished in the top three. Of those 30 horses, 12 competed at Saratoga as juveniles. That means that 40 percent of horses to have placed in a Triple Crown event in the last four years have emerged from Saratoga. Of those 12 horses, only one won his career debut; three others won at Saratoga in their second start and the remaining eight competed at the Spa without winning.
Saratoga is still a coming-out party for future stars. However, they might not be the horses you would expect. Not all of the Saratoga runners that went on to success in the classics actually won at the Spa. The horses that dazzle us by breaking their maidens impressively or winning some of Saratoga's juvenile stakes may not be in the headlines come the following spring.
Young racehorses develop mentally and physically at a different pace. The early bloomers may not withstand the rigors of training or may fall off the radar once the late bloomers catch up with them developmentally. Often, horses that emerge from Saratoga to make waves the next spring aren’t easily spotted at Saratoga because they were flying under the radar of the early bloomers.
If you're at Saratoga trying to see a star of tomorrow, it might be best to look for latent talent. That being the case, the situation, as it stands, speaks highly of all horses competing in maiden two-year-old races that Saratoga cards.
By Vic Zast and Nicole Russo
Nicole Russo, a horse racing writer for The Saratogian newspaper, is an expert on two-year olds and collaborated with Vic Zast to write this column. This is Vic Zast’s last column for HorseRaceInsider.com for awhile. He is going on self-imposed sabbatical to complete the production of a feature-length documentary film (see http://www.ourlongestdrive.com). Keep following Vic Zast’s horse racing interests at http://www.bloodhorse.com, facebook.com and twitter.com.