LAS VEGAS —Three-digit temperatures notwithstanding, summer has not really arrived yet. Astronomers, meteorologists and hot-under-the-collar commuters may differ, but racing fans and bettors know that the season does not really start until one of two phrases is heard on either side of the country.
“They’re off at Saratoga” in the east. “And aaaaaway they go” in the west at Del Mar.
The calls from Larry Collmus (borrowed from Tom Durkin) on Friday preceded by Trevor Denman on Wednesday afternoon are the annual christenings of the country’s most popular race meets. And it is not even close.
Summers in upstate New York and where the surf meets the turf near San Diego sustain enviably large crowds almost every day for seven weeks. Saratoga and Del Mar are not just for event seekers and society’s upper crust but especially for bettors, who will enjoy good-sized fields, the value that goes with them and a steady stream of stakes races from now until Labor Day.
“In my opinion Saratoga is the best betting meet in the country; Del Mar is an event – a great place to go,” said John Avello, who runs the race and sports book at Wynn Las Vegas. “If they were both Italian restaurants, Saratoga would be traditional with the hearty, red, meat sauce. Del Mar would be California cuisine.”
Renewing a tradition that started only a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, Saratoga’s 154th annual meet will pack races into six days a week with 69 stakes – including 18 Grade 1s – totaling nearly $18.8 million. The biggest of them – the $1.2 million Travers Stakes – should help bring some order to a 3-year-old division lacking a standout. Or as Avello puts it, “it’s the fourth race of the Triple Crown.”
Del Mar’s 78th summer since Bing Crosby opened the joint may pale with its 41 stakes worth $7.3 million, but the host for this autumn’s Breeders’ Cup has the world’s top-ranked racehorse all to itself. Arrogate is expected to race there twice this summer, including Saturday in the $200,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.
“He is the best I have ever been on, he truly is,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, 51, said after riding Arrogate to his most recent win four months ago in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. “God has blessed me so much to give me a horse like this toward the end of my career.”
But while we wait for Smith and trainer Bob Baffert to bring back their star this weekend, there will be plenty to see beforehand – including people. About 40,000 of them will pack Del Mar for Wednesday’s card that features the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes, a mile turf race for 3-year-olds with a full field of 14.
Morning-line favorite Bowies Hero (5-2) returns to California and carries top weight of 124 pounds, dropping in class off a fourth-place finish last month in the nine-furlong, Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont Park. Trained by Phil D’Amato, he won his way into last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf with a stakes win last Labor Day weekend at Del Mar. His biggest challenge may come from late-blooming Arms Runner (3-1), a winner in his only two career starts this past spring – both 6½-furlong turf sprints at Santa Anita. Carrying 120 pounds, he will be disadvantaged by starting from the rail post, which had a poor track record last year on the Del Mar turf.
Most refreshing for southern California are the field sizes for Del Mar’s opening day. An average of 9.5 horses will be in the 10 races, a significant improvement over the fields that were so small at Santa Anita Park during the winter and spring that two race days had to be scrapped altogether. That also means there should be decent win prices on favorites and long shots alike. Bettors have shown their appreciation for Del Mar in recent years with a daily average of about $12 million in all-sources handle.
“With Del Mar having the Breeders’ Cup this year, I would think that horses would want to get a race over that track,” Avello said. “I would like to see a lot of quality horses and races throughout the meet.”
But when it comes to following the money, Saratoga is the undisputed champion of summer, generating an average of about $16 million in daily bets from all sources. By comparison Churchill Downs brings in an average of $11 million during its spring meet, but about half those dollars come all at once on Kentucky Derby day.
Lady Eli’s return to the track where she made her debut three summers ago will highlight Saratoga’s opening weekend. With $2.4 million in earnings, the 5-year-old mare trained by defending Spa champ Chad Brown is expected to be the favorite on the turf in Saturday’s $500,000 Grade 1 Diana. A competitive encore comes Sunday when Kentucky Oaks and Acorn winner Abel Tasman is challenged again by Acorn runner-up Salty in the $300,000 Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-olds.
“Even on a Monday or a Wednesday you’re still going to get good racing at Saratoga,” Avello said. “There will be some maiden special weights, a couple of New York state stakes in there, and there will be some good 2-year-olds that could be Triple Crown horses down the road next year.”
Whether it is Del Mar or Saratoga, value will not be hard to find. Bettors will not be forced to piece together exotic, multi-race wagers to get a decent return on their investment. It is why Avello is using only those two tracks Aug. 4 and 5 for a betting contest at Wynn, which will christen its rebuilt race and sports books over the next few weeks – including the new one at Encore.
“There’s a mythical bankroll where you have to make $2 win-place bets on 14 races at just those two tracks,” he said. “Then you get a best-bet, $4 win-place. So you’ve got to bet 15 races total for two days in a row. We pay day 1 winners down to about eight spots or so and then the same on day 2. And overall we pay about 12 spots. There’s a $2,000 entry fee. We usually have 215-220 entries, so there’s a lot of money to shoot for.”
But that is down the line. For now Del Mar gets started Wednesday at 2 p.m. PDT (5 p.m. EDT) with races every day except Monday and Tuesday. Post time Friday at Saratoga is 1 p.m. EDT (10 a.m. PDT) with racing every day except Tuesday.