The 151st Saratoga season will be like none other that preceded it. July 11 is believed to be the earliest opening ever at Saratoga, which will race 40 days, the same as it has since 2010.
For the first time in this track’s storied history, racing will be conducted over eight weeks. The same 40 days that has been in place since 2010 will consist of a four-day week that begins with Thursday’s opening-day card – July 11 is believed to be the earliest opening ever for Saratoga – followed by six five-day weeks and then one six-day week ending on Labor Day, Sept. 2.
This will be the first meet with David O’Rourke as president and CEO of the New York Racing Association. In January, O’Rourke assumed leadership of NYRA after Chris Kay was forced to resign over ethics violations.
“Saratoga and the experience of it is one of the reasons I love working in horse racing,” O’Rourke said.
One of Kay’s pet projects was the 1863 Club, a new three-story structure built a sixteenth of a mile past the wire that replaces the old At the Rail Pavilion. The new structure offers luxury suites in addition to, on the ground-level, a buffet-style restaurant.
The extension in time – not days – of the Saratoga meet was announced in February and was based, in part, on the anticipation of the start of construction of a new hockey arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders on the grounds of Belmont Park. That construction has yet to start, though signs indicate it will begin by late July or early August.
However, NYRA racing officials have long wanted to go to a five-day race week for some time, believing it will be better for business than six days. In addition to creating an additional weekend of racing in Saratoga, the five-day week is deemed to be less taxing on an already declining horse population.
“The five-day week hopefully it helps a little bit with field size, allows us to put a stronger product out there,” said Martin Panza, senior director of racing operations for NYRA. “Certainly, when you’re offering nine less races a week one would think that will help things. In hindsight, with Colonial [Downs] running in August and the [increased] purses in Kentucky, thank God we did it. It would have been difficult running six days a week.”
The increased purses at Ellis Park in Kentucky combined with the added expense of the additional week to stay in Saratoga, has some Kentucky horsemen opting to decrease the number of horses they will keep at Saratoga this summer. Trainers Mark Casse and Mike Maker will each have 30 horses at Saratoga, but that is down from previous years.
“Are they sending a few less horses, yes, but at the same time Saratoga is a pretty strong driving force and I think owners will start to look at that,” Panza said. “I’m not knocking Ellis, but winning a race at Ellis or winning a race at Saratoga, which one makes your horse more valuable? Most owners are in this game for the experience, and I think Saratoga is a wonderful experience. So I can get the trainers concern, but at the end of the day the owner owns the horse . . . and winning a race up there or hitting the board in a stakes is very meaningful to the value of that horse.”
One new program Panza instituted for this meet is maiden juvenile races for horses who sold at auction for $45,000 or less. Horses who were put in the auction ring but did not reach their reserve of $45,000 or less are also eligible for these races. The idea is to give the connections of those horses a place to run without having to compete against the high six-figure or low seven-figure auction purchases.
“It’s a tough game for any owner to make money in, it’s got to be about the experience as well,” Panza said. “If we can let more people enjoy the experience of Saratoga that’s a good thing.”
The purses for those maiden auction races are $75,000, compared to $90,000 for
the other maiden races.
The Saratoga experience includes one of the most lucrative stakes programs in the country. There will be 76 stakes offered worth $20.85 million in purses. Highlighting the changes to the program are the new $1 million Saratoga Derby (Aug. 4) and $750,000 Saratoga Oaks (Aug. 2), part of the turf triple series for 3-year-olds that began with the Belmont Derby and Oaks last weekend and concludes with the Jockey Club Derby and Oaks on Sept. 7 at Belmont.
The $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24 figures to be a pivotal race in the 3-year-old division. It could mark the first meeting between Maximum Security and War of Will since the former was disqualified from first in the Kentucky Derby for interfering with the latter. War of Will came back to win the Preakness and is targeting the Jim Dandy on July 27, pending how he works this weekend in Saratoga. Tacitus, third in the Derby and second in the Belmont, as well as Code of Honor, the Kentucky Derby runner-up and winner of Saturday’s Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes, also are pointing that way.