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The 2023 Saratoga meet was kicked off in the unlikeliest fashion with a first time starter winning the Schuylerville (Gr III). The meet was capped off in an almost equally unlikely manner when a Delaware Park shipper rolled by the field in the Hopeful (Gr I) at 53-1 to win going away. Both horses were conditioned by a trainer that was essentially retired 3 years ago and…get this…has two wins in 2023…the Schuylerville and the Hopeful!
Alas the Gary Contessa two year old graded stakes double won’t be much more than a footnote when some future scholar takes looks back in time at the 2023 Saratoga meet. Sadly, remembrances of this summer will not be of upsets or great performances, the lasting images are the darkest ones, an equine horror show that played out in two acts. Of shock and despair and anger and the full range of anguish, the lowest of lows that this sometimes cruel sport can offer. Oh there were bright spots, yet even the premier event of the season, the Travers with its David vs Goliath storyline playing out in real time with hero Jena Antonucci slaying villain Mike Repole with an equine slingshot named Arcangelo, seemed like a late touchdown in a lopsided affair. For an industry that desperately needed all the good vibes it could muster after a taxing spring, the summer season at Saratoga turned out to be no tonic at all.
Elite Power versus Gunite is a nice emerging rivalry that offers up a subplot heading into the Breeders Cup Sprint. The older sprint division has been thin for several years but both of those guys are legit. Their two matchups in the AG Vanderbilt (Gr I) and the Forego (Gr I) were striking reminders of what really good sprinters look like.
Robbie Davis as a sire! Not only was Robbie a really good rider, he has sired three jockeys on the NY circuit and serves as the father-in law for another. Katie rode her first Spa winner and she wound up with 7 wins overall despite most of her mounts being of the longer priced variety. Dylan won 19 and in excess of $2 million dollars which was good for 9th in the standings while Jacky got shut out but is currently 5th in the standings at Finger Lakes.
Jose Lezcano had a quietly excellent meet winning 25 races and a little over $2 million in earnings, including capturing 4 stakes races (perhaps being robbed of another by a sketchy DQ) when finishing 10th in the standings. At one point over 12 starts from August 3-5 he won 7 times with 3 seconds.
Casa Creed added to his long resume with wins in the Kelso (Gr III) and then again in the Fourstardave (Gr I) for the second consecutive season. At 7 he is in career best form and while they don’t make horses like the namesake of his last stakes win, the son of Jimmy Creed is as close to a modern day version as we may get. He sure has come a long way since breaking his maiden at the Spa way back in 2018.
Echo Zulu returned to her dominant form of 2021 with a destruction of the field in the Honorable Miss (Gr II) (watch here) and a whistling win in the Ballerina (Gr I) over last years female sprint champ Goodnight Olive in front of a still stunned crowd on Travers day. A win in the Breeders Cup FM Sprint could give her a second Eclipse and an outside chance at perhaps getting elected to the Hall of Fame as a dual winner and two time Breeders Cup champion.
Brightwork made light work of the Adirondack (Gr III) which seemed to be a solid group of freshman distaffers before grimly holding off a tough customer in Ways and Means in the Spinaway (Gr1) closing weekend. Midwestern trainer John Ortiz has done nice work in his seven years of training with 2022 Kentucky Derby 6th place finisher Barber Road being his most notable trainee. Yet Brightwork appears to be his best chance yet of getting Ortiz some press by having a marquee headliner in his barn. Here is a Bloodhorse follow up story to her latest stakes triumph.
Todd Pletcher wasn’t able to muster up enough winners make it a three way battle for the training title but he did come away with a trio of super impressive maiden breakers that should make some noise this Fall. Locked, Agate Road and Fierceness all ran very well first time out though the first two lost those starts but subsequently returned to run even better. Locked broke his maiden going a mile out of the Wilson chute, which yielded some odd times since its inception, but if his 1:36 clocking was close to accurate, that 96 Beyer figure the son of Gun Runner received would seem legit. Agate Road was away to an awkward start in his debut which was scheduled to be a grass event but was washed off onto the main track. The son of Quality Road finished up well to be third that day but was very impressive in his follow up start when extraordinarily wide throughout when breaking his maiden closing weekend in a roughly run MSW on the grass. Fierceness was more of a typical Pletcher 2yo maiden breaker when the speedy son of City of Light dominated maidens in front running fashion over a muddy surface, checking in 11 lengths clear which was good for a 95 Beyer.
A few runners that I saw that you may want to keep an eye on when they run back (and perhaps place a wager on) yet seemed to avoid the Saratoga hype machine: More than Looks (ran huge in Hall of Fame Stakes (Gr II)); Air of Defiance (lost in the wake of Fierceness MSW win ran very well while getting a good education); Walstib (he won’t he a long price but if Ken McPeek adds blinkers he should be even better than his two runner up finishes); Awesome Native (Rosario’ed).
One of the very best aspects of horseracing is meeting other people from all walks of life that share the common bond: a love of racing. Saratoga is a destination on so many bucket lists and annual treks which makes it a prime location to meet and see both old and new friends each season.
Small fields in graded stakes. It’s not strictly a ‘Saratoga problem’ as many times in the past we have discussed the desperate need for the Graded Stakes Committee/Breeders Cup to act in concert with the major tracks to sort out the mishmashed schedule of graded stakes. The annual graded stakes schedule should make sense, it should be balanced and there should be some sort of upper/lower tiers that give our best horses a flowing path to the Breeders Cup Championship at the end of the year. Understand that it would be a huge undertaking to herd the cats required to make it work but if we want growth, we need to smooth out this issue. Having many of our best horses ducking each other for most of the season isn’t a great look and creating natural rivalries would be a huge benefit for the sport. It literally wouldn’t cost anything to make this happen.
Two terrible ‘once in a generation’ fatalities occurring just weeks apart and the other less spotlighted deaths including one that knocked jockey Luis Saez out of commission for several weeks. There is just nothing more that I can say at this point.
Too many mile races out of the Wilson chute. Yes it’s nitpicking but we went from none to a lot and they still feel gimmicky, especially with the strange times that don’t seem to match what our eyes are telling us.
I don’t think that I have ever seen as many starting gate issues as we did this season including a LOT of races where the official chart caller deemed the start “Poor”.
The stewards made several calls that seem to directly contradict similar ones that they made in the past. The Jim Dandy and Rick Violette stakes stand out as two of the decision’s that brought the most consternation. This is also a nationwide problem but the NYRA ones stick out for a few reasons, most importantly they are the most watched and wagered on races.
Scratches were an issue. This was never more apparent than on the Sunday afternoon where a very late surface switch necessitated all sorts of scratches and the dreaded ‘post time favorite’ drama. We get bombarded with tons of vet scratches these days and we have lobbied for transparency in this regard, let the wagering public know if a vet scratch is done by the horses private veterinarian or a regulation vet as the two can be interpreted quite differently. The overall theme for all racing suits should be treating your existing customers better because a frightening number of them are checking out…yet on a weekly basis there is some new example of punter disrespect.
I will admit that I didn’t miss the white caps checking your hand stamp every time I went into the clubhouse.
Ticketmaster sucks and hopefully NYRA will re-examine its deal with that iniquitous company. The irony of an $7 advance admission purchase costing $11+ (more than the standard $10 admission) because of Ticketmaster “fees” was not lost on many. When ‘Cardinal’ Sean Patrick Nolan calls you out…
The new empanada stand (shout out to Manuel the ‘free empanada guy’!) seemed like a hit. The sandwich stand that sold Icees on the second floor (in the same spot the meatball stand was previously) was a nice addition that seemed fairly priced.
A newby asked me why you needed to buy a ticket online to get in or to reserve a seat, use a credit/debit card to purchase a program and bet using cash. I replied that you technically can use cash to get in but I honestly don’t have a real good answer for requiring so many different forms of currency exchange at the same venue.
Wayne Lukas first started the practice of inviting kids into his winner circle pictures to try to give them a thrill and maybe trigger a greater future interest in the sport. NYRA CEO Dave O’Rourke expanded on that great idea as he was seen regularly accompanying “regular guy” fans into the paddock and winners enclosure. It’s a small gesture but the truth is that racing needs all the good karma that it can muster. Also kudos to O’Rourke for going on the NYRA preview show after the late surface change debacle and taking responsibility while seeming sincere in promising changes in that area.
I thought Frank Miramahdi did a fine job calling the races in his first full Spa season. He can occasionally dish out some cringeworthy, over-the-top post race praise (we probably don’t need reminding how many races Chad Brown or Irad Ortiz has won that day as they win lots of races all the time) but he is a solid caller that gives a good, accurate description of the action.
A rough year for the steeplechase set as delays, postponements and cancellations due to the unseemly weather conditions made life difficult. Yet our friend Sean Clancy winning his first grade 1 race in a couple decades, this time wearing a sports jacket and not jockey silks was definitely a highlight, especially after the difficult times he endured last summer when his barn burned down. The fact that I broke my longtime jumping wagering losing streak on the Jack Fisher trainee, Awakened, in the aptly named Jonathon Sheppard Handicap (Gr I) made the accomplishment feel even greater. RIP to Mr Sheppard, a great trainer and one of the most genuine people that you ever could have met.
My memories of this 2023 Saratoga meet will be involuted as the low points seemed to have overwhelmed the positive aspects on more occasions than I do care to admit. For better or worse, the collective gloominess hanging over the historic old facility this season did tamp down the usual melancholy feeling that the close of the season stirs. For locals the end of the meet signals that winter is indeed coming and a stark reminder that the countdown till opening day still has a whole lot of numbers on it. Yet the last week or so felt heavy, the weight of so much angst becoming a burden…everyone was over it and just wanted to turn the page.
I will try to remember the sunny side, the great times and lasting memories that are always created at this one of a kind, special place. Standing in the paddock and being reminded about the majestic way a good horse carries themselves. Seeing Luis Saez smile as he is genuinely happy to see you, even though he saw you yesterday and the day before and the day before that too. That moment of nervous trepidation right before the field loads for a big race, that you only get if you are standing right there watching…even if you don’t have any connection to it. The amusement of watching people watch races, especially when they freak out and start screaming at TV screens as though the jockeys or horses can hear them. Watching excited little kids follow Katie Davis through the grandstand like she is a jockey pied piper, not exactly sure who is enjoying it more. Learning that ‘Wayne and Joey’ sing at Dozer’s every Wednesday night and becoming somewhat of a groupie. Eating so much at Mama Mia’s that I thought I might need to be removed by a crane. Did a few doubleheaders including the night of the jockey-driver match race that injected some much needed life and energy into the “other track” in town. Happy hour Friday at the Mexican Connection. Max London’s tuna tartar. Stumbling into a recently retired Edgar Prado who was enjoying a much deserved vacation. Running into Ramon Dominguez who I received multiple reports about as he seems to be forever running through town in training for his next road race. Watching Rudy Rodriguez rush to the aid of a man having an diabetic episode, cans of Coke in hand to save the day. Fielding the question, “when is Barry coming” on almost a daily basis (next year is the answer). Sitting awhile and sharing stories with friends on the backside on my way out virtually everyday. Seeing so many old faces. Meeting so many new ones.
Much is said about Saratoga and why it’s become a racing Mecca for so many. We hear about the idyllic little town with its home spun Americana downtown and beautiful Congress park. Huge turn of the century homes dot the local neighborhoods with their wrap-around porches harkening back to a time that has passed. Barely a mile away from the track, sits Saratoga Lake which just adds to the sporting entertainment options. The world class racing and the traveling circus that follow the circuit, some driving Roll Royce’s, others coming in the back of a dusty horse trailer. The restaurant and club scene with seemingly something for every manner of reveler. The historical vibe of the area with the Racecourse dating back to the 1860’s, plus the Saratoga Battlefield National Park and accompanying National Cemetery, a reminder that the United States might not have ever been had the Continental Army not defeated the British in the battle that turned the Revolutionary War around.
Yet I believe it’s the people that make Saratoga what it is. I spent last winter here for the first time since I was a teenager and to be honest, it’s a shell of its summer self. Sure it’s grown bigger and there is plenty to do in the off season if you are looking to stay busy. However the soul of Saratoga is those that come each year to bask in its unique way of life. They travel here to share experiences with likeminded compatriots, racing an excuse to play hooky from work, lazy days and long nights creating lasting memories. The racing isn’t nearly as good as it once was but you can say that for almost every circuit. In the end the names of the great horses and trainers and jockeys and the races they raced live on, while the others soon fade away. Yet Saratoga endures…
This season was a sobering reminder that the past is gone, the present isn’t always pleasant and the future is unclear…yet I just looked at the calendar and it says there are only 271 days till the Belmont Stakes at Saratoga…but who’s counting?