Pity the itinerant homeowner who lives in Saratoga Springs. Or Ballston Spa. Or Greenfield. Or the often-mispronounced Schuylerville.
Imagine someone buying a house in that part of upstate New York and then renting out the place for the next couple of months. I get the mercenary aspect of this, but come on. What is the point of living there full time only to bail out during the greatest time American horse racing has to offer?
Argue if you will that Del Mar has better weather with a surfside setting that cannot be equaled. But there is no debate about where the best day-in, day-out thoroughbred meet is held in North America — maybe on the whole planet. Until I hear that Royal Ascot runs eight weeks, it is unquestionably Saratoga.
Look at the field sizes for opening day Thursday. I count 9, 9, 12, 12, 10, 11, 11, 9, 9 and 12. They are a value hunter’s panacea. Only one race has an easy single for horizontal bets. Morning-line favorite Golden Pal (1-2), trainer Wesley Ward’s 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint winner, will be odds-on to win the eighth race, the Grade 3 Quick Call Stakes. That appears to be the only free square on the horizontal bingo card.
The annual opening-day feature, the Grade 3 Schuylerville (pronounced SKY-ler-vill), is loaded with 2-year-old fillies that will run off and want the lead in the 6-furlong, main-track sprint. There is Ward again, this time with Happy Soul (8-5). She has won her last two races by 11 lengths each, including last month’s Astoria Stakes at Belmont Park.
Let me be an early fly in that chalk ointment. I think Mainstay (7-2) might be the faster filly. She splashed to a 7¾-length score in her maiden voyage through 4½ furlongs of slop last month at Monmouth Park. She has blazed through her workouts the last couple of weeks at Parx Racing. Her sire, Astern, was an accomplished Group 1 winner five years ago in Australia, where they know a little something about sprinters. And I am hoping the lack of recognition of the breeding and the overlooking of trainer Butch Reid will lead to an overlay.
Females also take center stage Saturday, when the Grade 1 Diana Stakes will be run over 1⅛ miles on the turf. It will be a rematch of European 4-year-olds Althiqa and Summer Romance. They were the top two finishers for Godolphin, going a mile in the Grade 1 Just A Game on Belmont Stakes day. Saturday’s race will also include Harvey’s Lil Goil and Lemista, the top two finishers May 8 in the Grade 3 Beaugay, an 8½-furlong race at Belmont. The added distance this weekend really plays to Lemista. So does her trainer, Chad Brown, who almost literally owns the turf at a track only 16 miles from where he was born.
Mostly because of his dominance with grass horses, Brown has won three of the last five training titles at Saratoga. Todd Pletcher was both exceptions, including a narrow triumph over Brown last summer. Their names on the trainer lines and seeing Ortiz, Irad Jr. or Jose, on the jockey line will lead to underlays on all their horses. But trying to beat them is like trying to hit a moving target.
Brown and Pletcher. Ortiz and Ortiz. Stakes five days a week. Multiple graded stakes every weekend. Some things never change at Saratoga. Some things do. The Pick 6 will have a higher minimum, $1, throughout the meet. And the Woodward, which used to be the climactic race every Labor Day weekend, has been moved to autumn at Belmont Park, switching places with the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Some things also will get back to normal after the COVID-19 summer of 2020, when the one-time move of the Kentucky Derby to September strong-armed the New York Racing Association into moving its showpiece $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes to early August. Now it is back where it belongs on Aug. 28.
Depending on what happens Saturday at Monmouth Park and whether the disqualification of Medina Spirit ever happens, Mandaloun might carry a Kentucky Derby-Haskell double into the Travers. Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality figures to be there next month. His tag-team partner from the Belmont, Hot Rod Charlie, might be there, too, again depending on Saturday’s running of the Haskell. Preakness winner Rombauer is a candidate. Onetime Derby futures favorite Life Is Good should be there for Pletcher, not Bob Baffert.
Depending on what a Brooklyn federal judge decides about Baffert’s legal demand to be allowed into Saratoga, maybe Medina Spirit will be there — with Baffert. Oh, wouldn’t that be a spectacle in and of itself? The NYRA and its lawyers are fighting to keep Baffert, his horses and his checkered medication history away from the Spa.
The start of the Saratoga meet comes annually with the fantastically cockeyed hope that the Travers will be loaded, that all the Triple Crown race winners will be there. If it happens this summer, it would be the first time since 2017.
The air of Saratoga optimism wafts over the East Coast so much that the Haskell gets lost. It does not deserve to this year. Not only will Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie be at Monmouth Park competing for $1 million Saturday, so will Midnight Bourbon, last seen finishing second in the Preakness. Following Sea will also be there, another horse cast off to Pletcher as a result of Baffertgate. He is actually my pick to steal the trophy from the Jersey Shore, unless some rogue jockey decides to step out of line and use his or her riding crop illegally in defiance of the state’s draconian new rules. (Don’t scoff. That happened with a 20-1 long shot Sunday.)
Ah, New Jersey. The home of the Boss, whose hometown Long Branch is one train stop from Monmouth. Not that there is any chance Bruce will be there. For that matter, who knows if Gov. Phil Murphy will bother to show up? He has dragged his feet on signing the bipartisan bill that would authorize long-awaited fixed-odds wagering on horse racing. Wasn’t he on duty when New Jersey should have been the first new state after the Supreme Court ruling three years ago to launch sports wagering? As I recall, Trenton dawdled, and Delaware got there first.
While New Jersey is all about political missteps, draconian restrictions on jockeys and a troubadour named Springsteen, upstate New York is simply the bedrock of U.S. horse racing. It seems to have graduated from the bad old days of a crooked Albany wagging the NYRA’s tail. The $1 Pick 6 has been installed this year in a laudable scheme to harness batch bettors. Horses and their connections will beat a well-trod path back to the Spa. And bettors will treat it like a wonderful summer camp, maybe even writing “wish you were here” on social media.
Carly Simon wrote home from Saratoga 50 years ago. All these years later we know only that one verse of “You’re So Vain” was about Warren Beatty. And it was not the verse about the Saratoga horse that “naturally won.” Ah, the elusive solution to a pop-music mystery.
Easier, it seems, to find winners at Saratoga in 2021, even if it is hard to find a house to rent. Maybe some of those permanent residents are staying in town after all. Maybe even in Greenwich. Speaking of burgs in New York that are often mispronounced …
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode touches all the bases at Del Mar, Saratoga and Monmouth Park. Longtime Southern California handicapper Bob Ike previews the summer at Del Mar. Trainer Fausto Gutierrez talks about his rising star Letruska and their goals at Saratoga. Monmouth handicapper Brad Thomas looks at Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Stakes. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo has his picks for weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.