Expect more turf racing and a compelling trainer’s race at Saratoga
By Dick Powell
As we head into July, I often get asked by people who see me in Saratoga, “How do you get ready for the meet?” I usually respond with a shriek and break out into a cold sweat. “Saratoga is opening in three weeks? OMG!”
It’s not like I am not paying attention but I am so consumed with the daily doings of Belmont that it is hard to look ahead. I know it is coming but would rather live in denial. Seven weeks with racing six days a week and up to 24 races per weekend can be overwhelming.
This may sound like a broken record but if the Saratoga meet began today, they would be off the turf. We have had a crazy weather pattern up here with thunderstorms that brew during the day then sweep across the state. The ground is saturated and farmers have had a hard time cutting and baling hay since there have not been long stretches of hot, dry weather. Even when we had a stretch of sunny and hot weather, the ground was too wet to send out equipment so very little got done.
Yes, the hay is still there, waiting to be cut but it begins to lose its nutritional value and an early cutting gives the farmers the greater chance of having a second cut later in the year. In short, the turf courses should be lush and green when you get up here.
Once you get to this time of year, summer is definitely here but it is also short-lived. By Labor Day, we will begin to see leaves turn and big, bad winter can’t be far behind. So, Saratoga, which used to be called “The August Place to Be,” starts about 10 days at the end of July and for the neurotic of us, we begin to see the days shorten.
The Saratoga race meet represents the start of our racing season but it you live here, it is the start of the end of summer so it is always with mixed emotions when the meet is on our doorstep.
For handicappers, be ready for more turf racing than ever before. If the weather turns and the pattern differs, we will definitely have more races run on the turf than on the dirt. This has been the evolution of New York racing and with two turf courses, it won’t be unusual to see at least six turf races run each day when the weather permits.
Close to 70 turf sprints will be contested and the rest are run around two or three turns. Belmont’s Widener turf course offers various one-turn turf races but when the racing comes up here, it is either a 5 ½-furlong turf sprint or two turns. It is very tough gauging a horse going from seven furlongs around one turn on the Widener turf course to either 5 ½ furlongs or a two-turn stretch out at a mile or more.
I find the turf sprints at Saratoga to be more truly run since they are run hard from the start but going two turns can be very frustrating since the riders often strangle their horses early. Eventually, someone figures out that if I go to the front, I can get away with a modest pace and hang on but it is usually a guessing game as to who will be smart enough.
The dirt track has had its composition changed and it will be interesting to see how speed does and how it handles moisture. For now, nobody knows since they have not started training on it.
Chad Brown against Todd Pletcher for the training title should be a story right until Labor Day. Last year, it was Chad with 40 wins to Todd’s 31 and knowing how competitive Todd is, don’t be surprised to see if he has some extra bullets in his arsenal for this year’s meet.
Chad won an amazing 26 races on the turf in 2016 and Todd tied for third with Mark Casse at 8. On dirt, Todd won 23 races to Chad’s 14 but the margin wasn’t enough to overcome Chad’s turf advantage.
Jose Ortiz pulled away to dominate the rider’s standings with 65 wins. His brother Irad had 57 and nothing leads me to believe things will be any different this year. Irad had the most wins on dirt, 32 to Jose’s 31, but Jose led the turf riders with 34 wins while Irad had 25 and Javier Castellano 24. Castellano and Johnny Velazquez will not have enough mounts to challenge for the rider’s title but look for them in all the big money stakes races.