As with everything else in this world, COVID-19 has changed how Saratoga Race Track will operate this year. No fans, limited owner attendance, restrictions on jockey travel, and fewer trainers using the Spa City as their operation headquarters for the summer months. It will feel strange; it won’t be the same. But in the long-run, we should feel happy there is a racing meet to speak of.
In an effort to pick ourselves up from the fact we cannot: (a) walk down Union Avenue and into one of the oldest sporting venues in America; (b) drink coffee at the Morning Line while the horses train; or (c) crush Coors Light and Hattie’s Chicken sandwiches at a picnic table by the paddock while inspecting the horses and past performances for the next race, we want to highlight some of the upcoming races of the summer, with a focus on how the stakes calendar has changed from the ‘traditional’ order of events.
NYRA was faced with the difficult task of scheduling what is one of the most stakes-laden meetings in the country with limited resources as a result of the loss of casino revenue. With that comes the need to trim down some of the purses in the stakes to be run, while also cutting out some races that may not provide full fields or are duplicative. To start the meet off, NYRA stuck with tradition by carding the Schuylerville for 2yo fillies on opening day. This year the field is a strong one, with a field of eight signing on. We could have some champions in the making, with regally-bred John Oxley homebred leading the field off an ultra-impressive maiden win for Mark Casse. This filly has the champion Beautiful Pleasure in her dam-side pedigree, so she deserves the high-billing and 6/5 morning line. Also in the field is the Asmussen-trained, Stronestreet-owned Hopeful Princess, also exiting an impressive maiden win at Churchill. Also remaining consistent for opening weekend is the Coaching Club American Oaks being the first Grade 1 of the meet, run on Saturday. A small, but strong field of 6 3yo fillies are signed on, led by two fillies from the Bill Mott barn, including Antoinette and Paris Lights. Also in the field are runners from Bob Baffert (Crystal Ball) and Chad Brown (Altaf). The winner and other top finishers here will likely make their next start in the Alabama or await the KY Oaks.
Some changes for opening weekend include the addition of the Peter Pan, which is traditionally the local prep for the Belmont Stakes and run the week after the KY Derby. This year, it will serve as the prep for the Travers, replacing the Jim Dandy. We found it interesting that they made this change instead of running the popular Jim Dandy opening weekend and put the Peter Pan later in the meet where the Jim Dandy turned up. Possible reasoning for this is that the Jim Dandy does come with more fan-fare than the Peter Pan, so NYRA believed they could generate more interest (and handle) in a card later in the meet with a well-known Saratoga stakes that will have to compete with the Kentucky Derby.
As you look farther into the meet, the first change you notice is the Travers is moved to August 8, from its traditional late August date in order to give the runners 4 weeks to recover and run in the rescheduled Kentucky Derby. This years Travers promises to be intriguing, as it is the confirmed prep for Saratoga local hero, Tiz the Law, winner of the Belmont and current early favorite for the KY Derby. Owned by Sackatoga Stables, this New York bred will bring large public appeal to this years edition of the Midsummer Derby as a horse of the people. Although his competition in the race is not yet determined, his presence at the track and in the field will be a highlight of the summer.
The change of the Travers date caused a ripple effect with other races to be moved around as well. This makes Whitney and Travers weekends, arguably the two biggest racing weekends of the summer, back to back on August 1 and August 8 respectfully. Between the two weekends, we will see stakes for nearly every division in racing with a total of 10 graded stakes between the two Saturdays and Sundays.
The traditional Travers Day will still keep some of its juice, as the Forego and Swordancer will highlight the August 29 card. We like this move, as it gives a day of racing at Saratoga where the older male turf-marathon and sprint divisions will be highlighted. Although these divisions get full service of two graded stakes each every year, they are often the second or third billing on the card when coupled with the fan-favorite Travers. We are happy these two divisions with hard-knocking older horses will get their day in the sun.
Of the more unconventional changes is what NYRA did to the 3yo male sprint division. Traditionally, the Amsterdam, at 6 1/2 furlongs, is run during the second week of the meet and serves as a prep for the Gr. 1 Allen Jerkens (formally the Kings Bishop) run on Travers Day at 7 furlongs. However, this year they are switched with the Allen Jerkens be paired with the Whitney on August 1, and the Amsterdam running on August 29 and be turned back to 6 furlongs. The swapping of the races appears to be meant to add another Grade 1 to the Whitney Card, but it seems odd to shorten horses up in this division and change the distance of this long-standing stakes.
The saddest change to the Thorobros is the loss of the Sanford Stakes for this year. As stakes had to be cut, it is understandable that a 2 year old stakes was chopped, as it hadn’t had the strongest fields in recent years and 2 year old have gotten a slower start this season with COVID. But with the great history of this race, it is disappointing none the less. It is arguable that without this race, Saratoga wouldn’t be the graveyard of favorites, as it is the race that represents the lone blemish on Man’O War’s otherwise perfect record. In 1919 he lost in this race to Upset, cementing the legacy of the graveyard of favorites. It is disappointing this piece of history will go missing for 2020, but I am sure NYRA will bring it back in 2021.
In a world of constant change, it will be nice to have Saratoga return the racing world to some form of normalcy. Even though we cannot be there together to cheer on the equine and human athletes that make this sport great, we can still relish in the competition that this historic venue brings every year. Enjoy the meet everyone!