SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It felt more like a Thursday than an opening day at Saratoga.
In reality, it was both. Not only was opening day a Thursday, it was July 11, the earliest opening in at least recent memory for this historic track, once known as the “August place to be.”
The early opening and mid-day rains led to a downturn in business for the Spa opener compared to last year when opening day was held on Friday, July 20.
All-sources handle on Thursday’s 10-race card was $15,754,227, down 22 percent from last year’s figure of $20,247,319. Ontrack handle was $3,087,839, down 42.8 percent from last year’s figure of $5,403,833.
Paid attendance Thursday was 22,591, down 33 percent from last year’s opening-day crowd of 33,714.
NYRA opted to open on a Thursday this year because it wanted continuity to what is now a 40-day meet spread out over eight weeks. Six of those weeks, the track will be open Wednesdays through Sundays. Opening week is Thursday through Sunday and closing week is Wednesday through Monday, Labor Day.
The heavy rains that came in mid-afternoon Thursday forced management to take the last race off the turf after wagering had closed on all multiple-race wagers. The race ultimately scratched down to a three-horse field from a 12-horse field.
Total runners Thursday were 79, compared with 92 on the 2018 opener.
David O’Rourke, overseeing his first Saratoga meet as NYRA president and CEO, took an optimistic view of the opener. He said the focus was the opening of the 1863 Club, the new three-story structure built on the clubhouse turn that replaced the At the Rail Pavilion tent.
“I think it actually went really well,” O’Rourke said. “We opened 1863, a lot of the focus was on getting that opened, and that went smooth. The rain held out for most of the day, we got hit at the end.
“It was a successful day, people had a good time, I saw a lot of smiles on people’s faces,” O’Rourke added. ”It’s opening day at Saratoga, how bad can it be?”
It certainly wasn’t a bad day for trainer Gary Gullo and jockey Joel Rosario. Gullo went 2 for 2 on the card winning the opener with Armament ($11.40) and the fifth with the first-time starter Big Q ($30). Gullo only won two races at the 2018 Saratoga meet.
It was Gullo’s second win with a 2-year-old in nine days. On July 3, at Belmont, Gullo sent out debut winner Miss Peppina.
“I think we got some 2-year-olds that look pretty good this year,” Gullo said. “As soon as [Big Q] came in, she had the look and it looked like she could run a little bit. I never worked her fast, but I worked her with a few horses that were okay and she showed like she was good.”
It was also a good day for Rosario, who won three races on the card including the co-featured Quick Call Stakes with Listing.
“Everybody wants to win here,” Rosario said. “It’s a good way to start the meet.”
Listing, trained by Ben Cecil, was one of two California-based horses to win Thursday at Saratoga. Comical, a debut winner at Santa Anita for trainer Doug O’Neill, won the Grade 3, $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes for juvenile fillies. Comical was ridden by Javier Castellano, who won two races on the card.
Castellano’s other winner came for Chad Brown, last year’s leading trainer at Saratoga. The two teamed to win the second race with Sayyaaf ($3.40).
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.