There’s an old joke about a horseplayer who made it to heaven, where he was greeted at the pearly gates by St. Peter and given a tour of paradise.
“Well, what do you think?” asked St. Peter.
“It’s nice,” admitted the horseplayer, “but it ain’t Saratoga.”
It’s tempting to wonder what said horseplayer would think of some of the changes in the venerable race course, which will swing open its own gates for the 151st time on Thursday, July 11. Except for opening and closing weekends, racing will be conducted five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. Closing week will run through Labor Day, Monday, September 2, with 40 days in total.
In addition to the opening of the 1863 Club – so named for the year in which Saratoga held its first organized thoroughbred meet – opening weekend will feature a trio of special events: Mariano Rivera Day on Friday, July 12, in honor of his unanimous election to baseball’s Hall of Fame and induction the following week; a performance the following day by American Idol star Madison VanDenburg of nearby Cohoes, New York, on Saturday, and the first giveaway of the meet, a Saratoga picnic cooler, on Sunday, July 14.
And, of course, the races, keyed by 76 stakes worth more than $20 million.
Above and beyond its glittering centerpiece, the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 24, if the Spa is known for anything, it’s 2-year-olds and turf races. Opening weekend will feature a fistful of each, beginning with the $150,000 Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies and the $100,000 Quick Call (G3) for turf sprinters on Thursday. Friday offers the $150,000 Forbidden Apple (G3), moved from the Belmont spring schedule, at a mile on the inner turf, with the first Grade 1 of the season, the $500,000 Diana for turf fillies and mares joined by the $150,000 Sanford for 2-year-olds on Saturday. Wrapping up the weekend’s stakes is the $100,000 Coronation Cup for 3-year-old turf fillies at 5 ½ furlongs.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, whose barn is traditionally stocked with talented 2-year-olds, sends out a pair of maiden winners in the six-furlong Schuylervlle in Kiss the Girl, a 4 ½-length winner on June 12 at Belmont Park, and Integral, who scored by 3 ½ lengths on May 25 at Gulfstream Park. Also in the nine-horse field are a duo from trainer Doug O’Neill: Shippy, who was purchased privately by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing following her 10 ¾-length win at Laurel Park, and Comical, stretching out on the heels of her six-length win on May 26 at Santa Anita Park. The six-furlong Schulyerville will be run as race 8.
Call Paul, who won the Saratoga Special (G2) last season, and the Pletcher-trained Sombeyay, who took the Sanford (G3), will be making their turf debuts in the Quick Call, carded as race 9 on the 10-race card. Among the 11 sophomores lining up for the 5 ½-furlong sprint will be Hat Creek Racing’s Abyssinan, who will be facing the boys for the second time this year, having finished third in the Palisades Turf Sprint on April 4 at Keeneland Race Course.
Grade 1 winner Voodoo Song, who is 5-for-6 on the turf at Saratoga, including last year’s Fourstardave, returns off a nine-month layoff as he seeks to repeat in the Forbidden Apple. The Linda Rice trainee, who took the Saranac (G3) as a 3-year-olds, was last seen finishing 12th in the Shadwell Turf Mile. Friday, he will face off against six other stakes winners, including Quurban, winner of the 2018 Bernard Baruch (G2) at Saratoga, along with Col. E. R. Bradley hero First Premio and Wise Dan (G2) winner March to the Arch, both from the barn of Mark Casse.
Speaking of Casse, the trainer who won two-thirds of this year’s Triple Crown is planning on running Preakness (G1) winner War of Will, who returned to training on July 1.
Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby (G1) but was disqualified for interference is a possible for the Travers. Trained by Jason Servis, Maximum Security, second to King for a Day on June 16 in the TVG.com Pegasus at his home track, Monmouth Park, returned to training on July 6, breezing a half mile in 53.80 seconds.
Derby runner-up Code of Honor, recent winner of the Dwyer (G2) at Belmont, last year’s Eclipse-winning juvenile Game Winner and Tacitus, second in the Belmont, are also in the mix as the second half of the season gets underway and the scramble for 3-year-old championship honors begins anew. The key races for sophomores at the Spa are the $100,000 Curlin on Friday, July 26, and the $600,000 Jim Dandy (G2) the following day, both preps for the 1 ¼-mile Travers, whose nickname, the “Midsummer Derby,” could take on extra meaning this year.
New this year to the stakes lineup are the second legs of the inaugural Turf Triple, the $1 million Saratoga Derby for 3-year-olds and the $750,000 Saratoga Oaks for sophomore fillies. Henley’s Joy, who won the $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational (G1) during the Stars & Stripes Racing Festival, and Belmont Oaks (G1) heroine Concrete Rose are both slated to take their next steps on August 4 and August 2, in their respective 1 3/16-mile races.
The Turf Trinity and the Turf Tiara (for fillies) reach their conclusions on Saturday, September 7 at Belmont Park with the inaugural editions of the $1 million Jockey Club Derby and the $750,000 Jockey Club Oaks.
In addition to the Forbidden Apple, two other stakes were moved from Belmont’s shortened spring schedule to Saratoga, with the Rick Violette, Jr. Stakes, formerly the Rockville Centre, run on July 17 and the Stillwater, previously known as the Lynbrook, taking place on July 18. Both are for New York-breds.
The meet now will encompass eight Saturdays, with at least one Grade 1 race on each, beginning with the aforementioned Diana on July 13. Following that will be the $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on July 20, the $250,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt for sprinters on July 27, the $1 million Whitney on August 3, the $500,000 Fourstardave on the turd on August 10 and the $600,000 Alabama for 3-year-old fillies on August 17.
The undercard on Travers Day will include five more Grade 1’s: the $600,000 Forego at seven furlongs, the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial for 3-year-olds, the $500,000 Ballerina for fillies (all at seven furlongs), the $700,000 Personal Ensign for fillies and mares and the $850,000 Sword Dancer on the turf. Also on the card is the $400,000 Ballston Spa (G2).
The final Saturday of the meet features the $750,000 Woodward, with the $350,000 Spinaway for 2-year-old fillies on Sunday and the $350,000 Hopeful for 2-year-olds on Monday wrapping up the Grade 1 action.
With approximately 200 hours of live coverage, Saratoga Live, in partnership with Fox Sports, will feature the full Saratoga card on most days beginning at 1 p.m. ET on FS2. New this year to the broadcast team is Acacia Courtney, who will join hosts Greg Wolf and Laffit Pincay III, former jockey Gary Stevens, handicapper Andy Serling, and others. Saratoga Live is also available on regional sports networks including MSG+, FOX Sports Prime Ticket, and Altitude Sports.
Gates will open at 11 a.m. on opening day and each day of the met with the exception of Travers Day. Grandstand admission is $7 and clubhouse admission is $10. Season ticket plans, single-day reserved seats, dining and group hospitality are on sale and available on NYRA.com/Saratoga.