Saratoga: Stars galore for six weeks

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – There won’t be a Triple Crown winner galloping across these hallowed grounds this summer, but there will be plenty of stargazing to do nonetheless at Saratoga.

The champions Songbird and Tepin, male turf star Flintshire, Triple Crown race winners Exaggerator and Creator, and jaw-dropping Metropolitan Handicap winner Frosted are among the equine celebrities expected to appear this summer, making for at least one must-see event almost every weekend.

The 148th Saratoga meet, consisting of 40 days, begins Friday and runs through Labor Day, Sept. 5. Racing will be conducted six days a week (dark Tuesdays), and post time is generally 1 p.m. Eastern, with a few exceptions.

Songbird, last year’s champion 2-year-old filly who is undefeated in eight career starts, was expected to arrive here Wednesday. She will headline the field for Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks, a race she will use for a planned start in the Grade 1 Alabama on Aug. 20.

Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Songbird for owner Rick Porter, said, “Mr. Porter wants to run against what he feels are the best fillies in the country. That’s why we’re coming there.”

Exaggerator, the Preakness winner, and Creator, the Belmont Stakes winner, are already on the grounds and pointing for a meeting in the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy on July 30 and then potentially another one in the $1.25 million Travers on Aug. 27.

Nyquist, the Kentucky Derby winner, is expected to run in the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on July 31. His trainer, Doug O’Neill, said on Tuesday that the Travers is not out of the question, though the horse definitely will fly back to Southern California after the Haskell.

“It’s definitely a championship maker to have the Derby and Travers on your résumé,” O’Neill said. “It’s definitely in the thinking.”

The $1.25 million Whitney on Aug. 6 is always one of the highlights of the meet. This year, it has more intrigue as Frosted, who put in arguably the best performance by any horse this year in the Grade 1 Met Mile, is expected to start. Frosted, third in last year’s Travers, won the Met Mile by 14 1/4 lengths in a time of 1:32.73, both stakes records for the 123-year-old race.

As much as a female turf horse can be considered a superstar, Tepin is one. She has won eight consecutive races, including victories against males in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile and, perhaps more spectacularly, against some of the best milers in the world in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot last month. She is being pointed to the Aug. 13 Fourstardave, which this year is being run as a Grade 1 for the first time.

Last year, Flintshire came from Europe to win the Grade 1 Sword Dancer here. Now a U.S. resident living in Chad Brown’s barn, Flintshire is expected to run in both the Bowling Green on July 30 and the Sword Dancer on Aug. 27.

That could depend on the weather since Flintshire prefers firm turf. Last summer, it hardly rained at all at Saratoga, as there were only eight flat races taken off the turf all meet. There is a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms both Friday and Saturday, with temperatures in the upper 80s to low 90s.

The terrific weather and an appearance by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah helped Saratoga enjoy record business last summer. All-sources handle was a record $648.2 million, while ontrack handle was $157.6 million.

“We’re coming off a record meet; we annihilated the previous record,” said Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association’s senior vice president of racing operations. “Would we like to do that again? Sure, but we have to be sort of realistic in what we do.”

NYRA is hoping to improve its business by expanding its presence. NYRA is launching NYRA Bets, a national advance-deposit wagering platform that replaces its in-state ADW outlet, NYRA Rewards. In concert with that, NYRA will air a daily 2 1/2-hour live broadcast of its races from 4-6:30 p.m. NYRA has made deals with additional cable outlets that will now bring Saratoga’s races into approximately 65 million more homes outside of New York.

Todd Pletcher is seeking his seventh straight and 13th overall Saratoga training title. The last five years, Brown has finished second to him.

Last year, Brown went into the final week with a four-win lead, but Pletcher won eight races over the last six days to win by three. Brown is coming off his first Belmont spring/summer-meet crown, and many – including Pletcher – believe he is the favorite to win his first Saratoga title.

“[With] the strength of Chad’s stable, he’s going to be tough to beat this year,” Pletcher said.

Brown, whose stable is turf heavy, said he needs to be fortunate with the weather to have a chance.

“At Saratoga, it’s more than just Todd and me. There are lots of top trainers here,” Brown said. “We need to keep the horses healthy, get some racing luck, and have good weather.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. was last year’s leading rider with 57 wins, three more than Javier Castellano. This year, Jose Ortiz, Irad’s younger brother, comes into Saratoga off a Belmont spring/summer meet in which he won 78 races, 21 more than Irad. This year’s colony will include for the first time Florent Geroux, who is leading North America in graded stakes victories with 18.

“Saratoga’s a whole different story,” said Jose Ortiz, who won 38 races here last summer. “It’s going to get a lot tougher, a lot more riders; there are trainers from out of town that I don’t ride for. But I got good trainers and good outfits that are supporting me right now. I’m going to keep working hard to try and be the leading rider here.”