The New York Racing Association likes to talk about big days these days.
It’s a product of new senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza’s philosophy that eye-popping purses and individual cards stacked with stakes races will grow the sport in New York.
One day that needs no such enhancement is opening day at Saratoga Race Course, as Panza, a long-time racing official in California, will surely find out on Friday.
The 146th Saratoga meet will kick off with a 10-race card, including what has become the traditional opening day feature, the 96th running of the Grade III Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies.
As usual, anticipation for this meet is high among horsemen and fans alike.
Total purses for the graded stakes program have been amped up to $17.45 million, including $1.5 million for the Grade I Whitney Handicap on Aug. 2, one of Panza’s designated “big days”.
In the meantime, fans will get their first dose of the 2-year-old program this weekend.
Along with the Schuylerville, the 100th running of the Sanford for colts will be held on Saturday.
This is the time of year when the 2-year-olds start rounding into some discernible form, and no one has been more prolific with juveniles than trainer Todd Pletcher, who has the heavy favorite, Fashion Alert, in the Schuylerville, and Nonna’s Boy in the Sanford.
“The early indications are good for our 2-year-olds, but now we’re getting into Saratoga, and it’s always tough here,” he said. “We’re still optimistic the group overall is looking good.”
Success with juveniles has been a mainstay of Pletcher’s four straight meet training titles.
It’s no coincidence that one of his go-to jockeys is Javier Castellano, who comes into opening day as the defending riding champ, his first at Saratoga.
Among the most-anticipated horses scheduled to run at Saratoga are two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan; 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, undefeated from four starts in 2014; Tonalist, this year’s Belmont Stakes winner who is the leading candidate for the $1.25 million Travers; and Princess of Sylmar, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama last year for her owner, Schenectady native Ed Stanco.
Besides Tonalist, the horses looking at the Travers include Grade I Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who was fourth in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Belmont, and Derby runner-up Commanding Curve.
Wicked Strong arrived at trainer Jimmy Jerkens’ barn on Wednesday.
“He came out of the Belmont well and held his flesh well, so we’ll work him this weekend,” Jerkens said.
Princess of Sylmar is pointing toward the Personal Ensign on Aug. 22 in what should be a rematch with Close Hatches.
Princess of Sylmar, ridden by Castellano, finished second to Close Hatches in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park last time out.
“I think tactically, we didn’t employ the right strategy,” Pletcher said. “The track was very fast that day and possibly speed-favoring, and we let the filly that won it get loose on the lead through some fairly soft fractions, and we weren’t able to overcome that.
“The important thing is she came out of it healthy, and we’ll regroup and try again.”
Pletcher also trains Palace Malice, who is coming off a win in the Grade I Met Mile.
The Dogwood Stable colt won the Jim Dandy last year before finishing fourth to Will Take Charge in the Travers. Will Take Charge is expected to be in the Whitney field.
“I think he’s firmly established himself as the leading handicap horse in the country,” Pletcher said. “Of course, in order to stay there, you’ve got to keep winning.”
Wise Dan arrived this week, and will breeze on Friday in preparation for the Fourstardave, which he won during both of his Horse of the Year seasons.
Saratoga will be featured on a variety of national TV coverage, starting this weekend with FOX Sports 1’s broadcast of the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks on Sunday.
MSG Plus is also on board for coverage, and NBC is carrying the races included in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” series, which are the Whitney/Test on Aug. 2, the Travers/Ballerina on Aug. 23 and the Woodward/Forego on Aug. 30.
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