By Tom Jicha
The earliest opening and longest meeting in Saratoga history could not have come soon enough. The onslaught of bad news and negative commentaries about racing has been relentless. Nothing counteracts this better than Saratoga.
The first time I walked into the Spa, SAM machines were still science fiction. I have been going back ever since, even though for almost a half-century this has entailed a 1,500-mile drive. This is how much Saratoga means to me.
When you love an activity you want to share it with family and friends. Over the years, I’ve introduced the joys of the Spa to my parents, my kids and some of their friends, my siblings and their kids and a slew of cousins. Not one of them would have ever walked into a race track otherwise. Now they are Saratoga regulars every summer.
One summer a few years ago, there were about 50 of us and a creative niece had tie-dye shirts made up to mark our family reunion. The local ABC affiliate noticed and did about a three-minute piece on us. I don’t know if we’ll match that number but later this month, we’re having another reunion.
I can’t believe there are people making an issue of the season extending by one week. To me, this is like finding an extra Christmas present I neglected.
Baseball statistics have a new metric, WAR, for Wins Above Replacement. When you acquire a player who hits 30 home runs to replace someone who hits 25, you don’t pick up 30 round-trippers. You pick up five.
It’s not as if Saratoga has created an eight-week meeting out of whole cloth. It has added one extra week. Somehow there are people who are making a big deal of this.
I appreciate that many downstate horse people rent private homes in the Capital region. It might be inconvenient for the owners to be away for another week. But if you can vacate for seven weeks, you can do it for eight. It’s not as if home owners won’t be handsomely rewarded. An extra week could be worth thousands in rent.
Even more farcical is the claim that the extra week is disruptive to local businesses. Right. Hotels, bars and restaurants have to hate the millions of dollars in revenue the racing season brings to town.
Let the curmudgeons curmudge. The rest of us have been given a gift, an extra few spoonfuls of a delicious ice cream sundae we can’t get enough of.
There is no finer racing over two months anywhere. A half-dozen stakes will be run this weekend, which wouldn’t have existed without the extension.
Saturday’s Diana will feature a confrontation of the caliber you generally get to see only on Breeders’ Cup Day. Last year’s BC Filly & Mare Turf champion Sistercharlie, the Diana defending champion, is scheduled to make her 2019 debut against her Chad Brown stable-mate Rushing Fall, a winner of 8 of 9, including a pair of Grade 1’s in her only starts this year.
The Travers is the centerpiece of every season at the Spa. With the 3-year-old division in disarray and leaderless, this season’s renewal figures to pack extra significance.
Miracle man Jason Servis has the Midsummer Derby circled for the real Kentucky Derby winner, Maximum Security. Depending on what happens in the Haskell on July 20, his subsequent conqueror, King for a Day, should also be at the Spa on Aug. 24.
War of Will, the only winner of a Triple Crown event still in training, will probably make this dance, too, as well as the warm-up act, the Jim Dandy on July27. Last year’s Eclipse champion Game Winner, is using the Los Al Derby this weekend as a Travers prep. Shug McGaughey is pointing Code of Honor, placed second in the Derby and winner of last weekend’s Dwyer, for the Travers, too.
But the best 3-year-old race of the meeting might be for sprinting fillies on Aug. 3. The sensational Guarana, who demolished her Acorn Stakes rivals, could head a field including Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress, record setting Covfefe and last season’s West Coast star Bellafina.
Guarana might detour into the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 but the Test will still be loaded. The Whitney, which is expected to bring McKinzie back East, might be the headliner on Aug 3 but it will have to go some to match The Test.
Sandwiching Whitney Day will be the middle legs of the new Turf Tiara, which generated record-breaking numbers closing Saturday at Belmont. Many of the same shooters should be back.
Every time a juvenile race, MSW or stakes, is run at the Spa, there is an anticipation that we might be in on the launching of a future champion. Opening weekend will feature the Schuylerville for fillies on Thursday and the Sanford on Saturday. All the 2-year-old action is a prelude to the Spinaway and Hopeful on closing weekend.
The best part of the new longer season is that with construction on the new Islanders arena at Belmont still not under way the new schedule should be in place for at least three years. By then, it will be the norm, never to be changed.
West Coast chaos
Del Mar used to be Saratoga’s West Coast cousin, the treat SoCal racing fans looked forward to all year.
Racing approaches this Del Mar season, which opens July 17, more with dread than anticipation. All it will take is one equine fatality, a seeming inevitability, for the unholy alliance of PETA, Gov. Newsom, Sen. Feinstein and the media to renew their calls for the abolition of racing.
Even absent that, Del Mar, in order to maintain a five-day schedule, has had to drastically reduce the number of races to be run in recognition of the shortage of horses. Wednesday and Thursday cards will offer only seven races. Friday will have eight. Saturday is the big day with nine. On Sunday, it goes back to eight. Del Mar is only hopeful it will be able to maintain this abbreviated format.
The new rules put in place at Santa Anita allow any of five “experts” to order a horse scratched. The expected abundance of caution is sure to result in many short, un-bettable fields. Fans got a preview of this in the closing days of the Santa Anita meeting.
Fewer races with fewer horses; there’s a formula for success. I wonder if Del Mar will keep the exorbitant prices it charges for admission and parking while offering lesser entertainment.
Any sympathy I might have for Del Mar was eradicated when it meekly joined with The Stronach Group and NYRA to put Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer out of business. Like the others, Del Mar offered no explanation even though Hollendorfer has no outstanding violations in any jurisdiction.
So anything Del Mar suffers, up to and including being shut down by the forces aligned against racing, will be a case of poetic justice.