Saratoga Mid-Meet Review: Several highlights amidst the gloomier weather
As has been the case more days this year than in recent memory, Tuesday was indeed dark, as in gray and wet, the charm of the good weather with which Saratoga has been blessed in past years finally expiring.
Songbird might be on the grounds, but her appeal seems pretty "inside baseball," and without a mainstream equine superstar this summer, the weather has been a story, and maybe even the story.
Over the last few years, Saratoga has been uncannily sunny and dry, but umbrellas and mud boots are no longer rare sightings here. Handle and turf racing have taken a hit, and last Saturday, more than half the races were cancelled after a series of deluges early in the day.
Songbird continues to train beautifully ahead of this Saturday's $600,000 Alabama (G1), but despite her undefeated record and impressive win here on opening weekend, the buzz about her is muted...or even non-existent. There's no campaign trumpeting her triumphs, nothing that might expand her appeal beyond dedicated racing fans. The undefeated filly that defied the Graveyard of Champions has a surprisingly low profile at the most visible racing meet in the country.
Is it because she has raced exclusively against her own sex? Because she's only three? Does either of those factors, or their combination, diminish her accomplishments, make her less marketable as a superstar? At the Hall of Fame induction ceremony last Friday, we were reminded of the phenomena of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, horses that inspired passion and debate and around whom various industry entities built entire marketing strategies.
Songbird posters will be given out at the track on Saturday, something announced for the first time via e-mail Monday, and the filly's return engagement here this weekend is celebrated frequently on the in-house feed. People at the track know who she is. Does anyone else? Does it matter?
Speaking of the Hall of Fame: Have you ever seen a man reinvent himself on live TV? (OK, live video stream.) Before the ceremony, I'd have guessed that Steve Asmussen would have been the fourth choice of four on the morning line to be the high point of the induction, but more than one person I know gave a surreptitious swipe to a tear as his wife Julie presented him and as the trainer stepped tentatively through a speech low in pull quotes but high in emotion. Somehow, surprisingly, the controversial trainer overshadowed the three other beloved inductees, Ramon Dominguez, Zenyatta, and Rachel Alexandra.
The first half of the season saw some remarkable performances: in addition to Songbird, we saw Flintshire's Bowling Green (G2) and Frosted's Whitney (G1), along with classy maidens Bowie and Theory. But as impressive as the equines were, the performance story of the summer so far belongs to a human, and that's trainer Chad Brown.
He started the meeting by going seven-for-seven in stakes races, and while he won't go undefeated in black type this summer, he leads perennial Saratoga top trainer Todd Pletcher by five wins, with a total of 23, with six fewer starters than Pletcher's 82. His top-three percentage is a staggering 61 percent.
He's on track to win his first meet title, though with 18 racing days left, a lot can change, and in the end, Brown's numbers might not be his most impressive accomplishment this summer. Should his Lady Eli, off since an injury that imperiled her life more than a year ago, come back to win the Ballston Spa (G2) on August 27, or even run competitively, it might well overshadow anything else he achieves at Saratoga.