Nothing on Twitter, the launching pad for national angst, surprises me. Not that it’s always bad news. Sometimes it’s just bad takes on good news. Consider Saratoga 2020 for example.
There’s the pining for the traditional 24-day meet which was replaced for the first time last year. “The quality isn’t as good now” is a common complaint despite the face the number of races are about the same due to the five-day race week.
Objectively, not much has changed, it’s still Saratoga and still the best extended race meet in this hemisphere. And even if that weren’t true, the Saratoga brand remains magical.
On balance, field size has been smaller but overall quality has been maintained. There always have been claimers and state-bred races. But some of the shortest fields, filled some of America’s best horses, still show up and put on a show.
And some of the absent horsemen won’t have the Saratoga main track, with its reputation for being tough on the horses, to blame next year. We have been lauding the new surface since Day 2 of the meet for its fairness and safety.
Even when the rare bias does occur, it’s easier to overcome than in the past. A damp-fast track the day after a biblical late-night deluge last week even rendered seeing disbelieving. So here we are at mid-week, a brief of 2020 Spa highlights, Part 1:
The jockey race among the Ortiz brothers and Joel Rosario has been the most contentious we can remember. What makes it so compelling has been their dominance. The three riders have account for 91 of 194 races run.
With Irad Jr. one ahead of baby brother Jose, 32-31, Rosario, with 28. is currently double the output of Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, with Tyler Gaffalione one behind Castellano with 13 victories.
Battle for leading trainer has been no less contentious. Three winners separates four horsemen: Todd Pletcher, with judicious placement and horsemanship, leads the way with 16.
Christophe Clement, the training story of the first half , is next with 15. His horses win the right way. Mike Maker, who has been spooky, especially en fuego on grass, is next with 14, one ahead of recent perennial Saratoga leader, Chad Brown.
Brown’s horses have been under-performing and at one stage suffered through an uncharacteristic 1-for-34 slump. But he has many more bullets left to fire, with a Murderer’s Shedrow to do so. Brown is too good at what he does and remains favored to take the title.
Horseplayer’s have risen to the occasion as well, tabbing the winners of 69 races, a win rate of 35.6% that is better than the national average. The “Graveyard” still picks off the occasional victim, then that’s Saratoga, and horse racing, isn’t it?
TRAVERS UNDERCARD SPARKLES
With no hyperbole, intended or otherwise, G1 Ballerina winner Serengeti Empress gave one of the most remarkable performances ever seen, certainly the gamest performance of the meet.
Pace does make the race and to be gunned from the pole going seven-eighths, getting the first half mile in 43.74, unheard of on this circuit, resist two speed challengers and hold off G1 winner Bellafina, nicely positioned with the table set, was stunning.
After getting 7 furlongs in 1:21.83, it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Trainer Tom Amoss, using good judgment in leaving his filly here where she’s thriving and point to the a distaff sprint at the same trip, is making the right call.
It was the performance of the meeting until Gamine showed up an hour and a quarter later and rock the house and G1 winning Venetian Harbor by seven with hand encouragement only in 1:20.83.
As above, pace does make the final time, too. Gamine ran her half mile in 45.14, a second and two fifths slower than her older rival, thus able to finish faster. She faced less physical pressure, too, as Rosario took a snug hold of Venetian Harbor, giving his rival a half-length advantage, albeit unlikely to alter the result.
Jose Ortiz showed class, admitting he made a mistake aboard Imprimis, who won the Troy as much the best. Amazing what a throat surgeries can do, begging the question why is this kind of information not noted anywhere before the race.
Ortiz used an unnecessary right-hand on the “winner” as he raced by everyone. He lug-left tightened it up, an ensuing chain reaction highly likely costing third finisher second money. The elevation was gutsy, tough, but proper call.
The narrow victory by My Sister Nat over the season-debuting Mrs. Sippy saved the 2020 renewal of the Waya from being completely forgettable. These are two talented marathon race mares, but give me the second finisher when they meet again.
Other performances worthy of note was the debut of juvenile Mutasaabeq who was bet from from the opening bell, winning with authority as the odds-on favorite, appearing to have a bright future.
Loved the karma. The colt started the year with the retired Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden Saturday by Luis Saez, who is represented by agent McLaughlin. The Into Mischief bay colt is likely, though not necessarily, to return in the G1 Hopeful hinted trainer Todd Pletcher.
Seasons, a chestnut daughter of the great turf mare Winter Memories by Tapit–by a gray, from a gray–won on debut with grim determination, holding off a challenger with momentum who looked a certain winner. But the pedigree came out, getting redoubtable ‘J.J.’ Toner off the duck…
Windfall Profit broke turf maiden for Shug McGaughey as if stakes events are in her future… Spinoff was carefully pointed to the overnight Alydar Stakes and delivered what appeared to be a breakthrough performance…
Tiz the Law, a deserving heavy favorite for the SEP 5 Kentucky Derby, does not corner the market on feel good stories. Trainer Tom Drury Jr. has made a transition from “equine cleaner,” a horseman’s horseman with layups, to center stage.
His handling of Art Collector has been masterful beyond the 4-for-4 record, getting away with a light work schedule and still winning the Ellis Park Derby with classy authority. Colt’s tactical speed and class are likely to show up on Derby Day.
Some credit also to Brian Hernandez Jr., who calls Churchill Downs home as has handled the bright lights, taking the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Larned for Ian Wilkes. Hernandez will seek his sixth straight score on Art Collector SEP 5.
Most observers have been saying for years that a bad day at Saratoga is about five times better than daily attendance at Belmont Park, and sometimes attracts more than twice the handle.
Horse shortages notwithstanding, the race week was shortened to five days to accommodate a mid-July opener so it’s about a wash when it comes to number of races run.
If there is a complaint that has some validity is that, on balance, fields are smaller but then the number of daily races have