Main track produces slower times, race-riding tactics in spotlight during opening week at Saratoga

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TwinSpires Staff

July 25th, 2017


The first four days of Saratoga are in the books and some interesting things happened that bear watching.

This year, there was clay and sand added to the main track in an effort to get all three main tracks at NYRA as similar as they can. The first noticeable factor was how slow the main track played. The first three days of the meet were run under dry conditions and the main track was listed as “fast.”

But we saw some turtle-like running times with only a few exceptions. When the skies opened up early Monday morning and the main track was listed as “sloppy (sealed),” it was even slower.

This is not to say it was a main track that favored closers since front-runners did as well as could be expected. It just meant it took a while for them to get to the wire.

Work was done on the turf course in the off season and it looked like it might have helped front-runners. I will withhold final judgement since the Inner turf course ran on the hedge and the Mellon turf course ran with the temporary rail 12 feet out so we will have to see how the turf performs when the rail is farther out.

The stewards were in the spotlight in the weekend’s marquee races and both times, they flashed the “Inquiry” sign before letting the original result stand.

In the Diana Stakes (G1) on Saturday, Irad Ortiz Jr. turned for home three wide aboard favored LADY ELI (Divine Park) and went up after the leaders. QUIDARA (Dubawi) was running the race of her life towards the inside and ANTONOE (First Defence) was trying to squeeze through a narrow opening on the rail.

There was some brushing in the stretch and Ortiz Jr. did in fact come over enough to take away some of Quidara’s momentum which, in turn, took away the running room of Antonoe. The replay was reviewed many times and the result stood.

If you watch New York racing on a daily basis, we see the Ortiz brothers drift out or in when they have the lead to interfere with the horse making up ground on them. It rarely gets called so why would they stop doing it now? And, they are good at it as they subtly ease over and take away some ground from the horse moving up on them instead of blatantly bumping into them.

On Sunday, Mike Smith gave favored ABEl TASMAN (Quality Road) a sensational ride when he sensed a slow pace and sent the favorite down the backstretch to go up after the leaders. It was a bold move on Smith’s part, one that could be labeled premature with more five furlongs to go in the nine-furlong Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).

Turning for home, Jose Ortiz moved ELATE (Medaglia d’Oro) up the rail and it looked like she had enough room. Smith saw him coming and shifted Abel Tasman to the inside just enough to take away Ortiz’s momentum. Things got real tight and Ortiz had to battle Abel Tasman to his outside and the fence on his inside. Smith made things even worse by using his left-hand whip on Abel Tasman and then leaving the whip out there to intimidate Elate.

A long steward’s inquiry ensued afterward and Smith pled his case. After a long delay, the stewards let the result stand and Smith flew back to California. Nobody move; nobody gets hurt. Not the crime of the century but Smith’s savvy was the difference between winning and losing.

The irony was what happened to Jose Ortiz was what he and his brother do on a daily basis, and like Smith, get away with. Yes, it’s called race riding and it pales in comparison to what riders used to do to each other.

But if we are going to have the safest sport possible, these tactics have to be controlled since there is a fine line between risky and reckless. I will say it again if you missed it earlier but I believe every foul should be called no matter what.

DR. FAGER (Rough N’ Tumble) cut off IN REALITY (Intentionally) going into the first turn of the Jersey Derby in 1967 and won by seven lengths. In my mind, Dr. Fager, one of my all-time favorites, should have been taken down and he was. Today, they would say it didn’t affect the outcome of the race.

Ricardo Santana Jr. was the riding star of the first four days with five winners, three of them coming on turf. They paid $20.80, $12.20, $13.20, $43.80 and $24. He is young and aggressive and if he starts to pick up business with more live mounts, Santana should be fun to watch. The Ortiz brothers are first and second with Irad having seven winners and Jose six. Todd Pletcher has four winners and Chad Brown and Kiaran McLaughlin are next with three each.

Dick Powell handicaps New York tracks for You can find his Daily Selections for the Saratoga meet here.