I’m often asked to describe the atmosphere of the Thoroughbred racing season in our idyllic oasis of Saratoga Springs. My response is always the same: It’s akin to the payoff scene from the movie A Christmas Story. After much angst, the impatient Ralphie gets to experience the euphoria of clawing through the wrapping paper with reckless abandon to discover that Santa has, indeed, come through with the coveted Red Ryder BB gun he’s been obsessing over. It’s that kind of pure joy. I like to tell people that racing season here is 40 days’ worth of Christmas mornings.
Each summer, Saratoga Race Course—one of the world’s grandest sporting cathedrals—showcases Thoroughbred racing at its best: the finest racehorses, the world’s best jockeys, the game’s most astute trainers and the most famous (and infamous) owners. Throw in the high-fashion showcase and the dizzying nightlife, and you have all the elements of summer at Saratoga. It’s a one-of-a-kind novella playing out on a stage that has been producing racing icons since Abraham Lincoln was president. This all happens here in our backyard. Lucky us, indeed.
This year’s Saratoga Race Course meet will be highlighted by the 150th running of the track’s signature race, the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes, on August 24. There will also be a couple of new additions to the schedule, to complement famous stakes race fixtures such as The Whitney, Alabama, Woodward and Hopeful, among others. For one, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) is debuting its $5.25 million Turf Triple Series for three-year-old grass horses, with the introduction of The Turf Trinity and Turf Tiara, each of which features a trio of races run at Saratoga and Belmont Park. The Saratoga races include the $750,000 Saratoga Oaks, which runs on August 2; and the $1 million Saratoga Derby, to be held two days later.
It’s a little too early to say with any conviction which horses will star at Saratoga this summer (will controversial Kentucky Derby winner Country House make an appearance?), but keep an eye on the training of two-time Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow and 2018 Travers Stakes winner Catholic Boy in the older male division. Thunder Snow’s trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, has said a summer campaign in America is likely, with a stop at Saratoga en route to The Breeders’ Cup being the preferred plan for the Godolphin-owned standout. Catholic Boy, meanwhile, is being geared up for potential dates in The Whitney (August 3) and/or The Woodward (August 31).
Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. earned his second leading rider title at Saratoga in 2018, when he won 52 races, 9 more than Hall of Famer Javier Castellano and 10 more than his younger brother, José Ortiz. Expect those three to battle atop the jockey standings once again this summer with the likes of Manny Franco, Luis Saez, Joel Rosario, Ricardo Santana, Jr., Hall of Famer John Velazquez and Saratoga Springs native Dylan Davis also figuring prominently among the deep riding colony.
Mechanicville native Chad Brown will look to defend his Saratoga training title against the always formidable Todd Pletcher. Brown set a Saratoga record with 46 wins in 2018 to earn his second leading trainer crown at Saratoga Race Course. Pletcher, meanwhile, has topped the Saratoga standings a record 13 times and is a threat to do so once again in 2019. Other top trainers to keep an eye on include Hall Of Famers Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen and Claude R. “Shug” McGaughey III, as well as Rudy Rodriguez, Linda Rice, Kiaran McLaughlin and Jeremiah Englehart.
See you all at Saratoga’s Opening Day on July 11—or as I like to call it, Christmas morning.