For New York horse racing fans, the start of the Saratoga summer racing meet is Christmas in July — and lasts for 40 glorious race days.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) shifts its racing up to the Spa this Thursday, July 14 for the country’s most lucrative thoroughbred racing meet. The nation’s best jockeys, trainers and horses – and generations of fans – have converged upon the upstate town, in the shadow of the Adirondacks, for more than 150 summers, and the meet has only grown in recent years in size, splendor and stature.
After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic impacting Saratoga, things should seriously return to normal this year, with big crowds lining the track apron, picnicking in the backyard, and getting up close and personal with jockeys and horses in the tree-lined paddock in a venue unlike any other in the country.
And win or lose, they’ll be witness to some of the best racing in the country this year.
Here’s seven things to expect at this year’s meet.
One-mile dirt races
On Thursday, Saratoga fans will get to see something they haven’t witnessed in 30 years: a one-mile dirt race.
That’s because NYRA rebuilt the Wilson Chute on the clubhouse turn, which had been built and deconstructed, and used off-and-on, multiple times the last century; it was last used in 1992. Horses will get a sixteenth of a mile straight run into the midway point of the clubhouse turn, then bank to the left into the backstretch.
The one-and-a-half turn mile will figure to be quite useful for turf races of 1 mile or 1 1/16 miles that have to be moved off the grass due to inclement weather. Without that one-mile dirt option, those races were changed in previous years to either 7 furlongs or 1 1/8 Miles – dramatically altering the dynamics of the affected contests.
The restricted Wilton Stakes (Race 7) for fillies on the Opening Day card is the first officially carded Wilson Chute race of the meet.
The Midsummer Derby
The Aug. 27 Travers Stakes is Saratoga’s most prestigious race, dubbed the “Midsummer Derby” for its likeness in distance and stature to the Kentucky Derby. This year’s Travers will be huge in deciding this year’s three-year-old championship, and the Derby and Preakness winners – Rich Strike and Early Voting – are pointed to the big race.
Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal, however, won’t be part of the field after he was taken out of training due to injury.
Other major Travers contenders may emerge in the July 23 Haskell Stakes, at Monmouth Park, and the July 30 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.
One wild card could be Charge It, who won the July 2 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park by 23 lengths, and is training up to the Travers.
The Aug. 6 Whitney Stakes could make for one of the best Grade 1 races of the entire meet, featuring a showdown between one of the fastest older horses in racing today in Life is Good, and an emerging Breeders’ Cup Classic threat in Olympiad.
Both horses were winners back on July 2, with Life is Good vanquishing three rivals while sprinting in the John A. Nerud Stakes at Belmont Park — and Olympiad defeating a stacked field around two turns in the Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Life is Good, the Pegasus World Cup winner trained by Todd Pletcher, is regally bred with tactical speed, and can win at both routes and sprints. Olympiad, trained by William Mott, has won four older stakes route races from off the pace, and has shown the heart of a champion in grinding out wins down the stretch each time.
With both horses now pointed to the Whitney, we could get a truly classic race that may prove decisive in Horse of the Year honors.
Saratoga has been the place where future thoroughbred stars have had their coming-out parties in the dozens of two-year-old races run around the oval.
Six graded stakes races on the dirt for two-year-olds are on the calendar, starting this weekend with the Schuylerville Stakes for fillies on Thursday and the Sanford Stakes for colts on Saturday, both at 6 furlongs.
Midway through the meet are the Adirondack Stakes and Saratoga Special, followed on Labor Day weekend by two Grade 1 races: the Spinaway and Hopeful Stakes.
But keep an eye out each day of the Saratoga meet for maiden and allowance races for two-year-old colts or fillies. You’ll likely see a standout performance to remember in stakes races this fall — and next spring.
Horses aren’t the only stars at Saratoga, of course. The best jockeys in America come to the Spa to battle it out not just for their shares of lucrative purses, but also bragging rights as overall meet champion.
Last year, Luis Saez bested the incredible brothers Irad Jr. and Jose Ortiz for the jockey championship, winning 62 races and earning more than $6 million for his connections. But while Saez had his horses in the money 44% of the time, the Ortiz brothers made sure they had their mounts in the top three at least 50% of the time (Irad Jr. did slightly better than his brother, with 54% of his mounts hitting the board).
But one rider to watch at this meet is Flavien Prat, who moved his tack from California to Belmont during the spring-summer meet this year and finished fifth in the jockey standings with 31 wins and his mounts in the top 3 55% of the time. The reigning Eclipse Award-champion jockey could easily steal the show riding at the Spa instead of Del Mar, where he spent last summer.
A late surge of wins at the 2021 Saratoga meet propelled Chad Brown to the trainer standings. He had 40 of his horses win at the Spa last year, earning more than $4.3 million in purses, and Brown-trained horses hit the board 55% of the time.
Todd Pletcher could be Brown’s biggest threat at another training championship. Pletcher horses made it to the winners circle in 30 Saratoga races last year, and hit the board 54% of the time.
Absent from the racing scene this year is embattled trainer Bob Baffert, who remains suspended from NYRA tracks through next January as a result of Medina Spirit testing positive for a banned substance in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
‘The Graveyard of Favorites’
There are days when the Saratoga card is full of “chalk,” as the handicappers say, and favorites dominate races. But the Spa earned its long-standing reputation as “The Graveyard of Favorites” for some stunning results in its biggest races.
From Upset upsetting Man O’War in the Sanford Stakes in 1919, to Onion defeating Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney Stakes, to Keen Ice beating American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, Saratoga has a reputation of making the impossible happen for an underdog horse.
That might be something to keep in mind this year, in particular, after Rich Strike shocked the world with his Kentucky Derby victory at 81-1 odds.
If you like taking chances on underdogs at high odds, Saratoga’s the place to do it.
Saratoga will race Wednesday through Sunday through Labor Day; first post, with a few exceptions, will be 1:05 p.m. every day. Visit NYRA.com for further details.