SARATOGA SPRINGS — On a gray Tuesday morning at trainer Chad Brown’s barn, one of his horses chewed away at the outside edge of a stall door.
Soon enough, his runners won’t have to eat their way out. Brown is poised to unleash another powerhouse string of contenders into the biggest races at Saratoga Race Course, which kicks off its 150th meet on Friday.
The Mechanicville native finished second to Todd Pletcher in the trainer standings in 2017, a year after Brown won his first Spa title with a record 40 victories. Pletcher equaled that number last year, with Brown one back in a race that came right down to closing day.
For the third year in a row, the 39-year-old Brown is riding some Belmont Park steam into Saratoga, having dominated the trainer standings during 53 racing days of the Belmont spring-summer meet. Many of those horses will be ready to cycle back at the Spa, with others ready to come off the bench when Brown believes the time is right.
The 2018 meet promises to be another duel between Brown and Pletcher. Of the 396 races run in 2017, they combined to win 79, a whopping 19.9 percent for just two of 110 barns to have won at least one race.
“You’ve got the top horses and horsemen, the largest amount of prize money given away in the country … it’s supposed to be difficult,” Brown said. “And, of course, you have to negotiate weather and such.
“It’s always a challenge, but I feel like we have a lot of depth through our stable. Hopefully, we have that all-important racing luck throughout the meet, and that includes trips and weather and all that.”
It didn’t take long for racing luck to rear its ugly head.
His rising 3-year-old turf filly, Rushing Fall, spiked a fever recently, just in time to miss the Lake George on opening day, which would have been her comeback race following her first career defeat, in the Edgewood on Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs in May.
And because his stable is stocked with so many turf specialists, rainy weather typically has a bigger impact on Brown’s plans than it does for Pletcher. At the tail end of last year’s meet, two days of rain kept some of Brown’s turf runners in their stalls instead of in races they had been targeting.
Luck aside, Brown has his roster in position for another big win total. In Saturday’s Grade I Diana, he’ll have at least three entered, and perhaps four. Brown has won that race three times in the past seven years, most recently with champion Lady Eli in 2017.
“I love that race,” Brown said.
The one race at his hometown track that Brown covets, though, is the Travers, to be run on Aug. 25, and he has two shots at that, provided Gronkowski shakes off a minor physical issue. Brown will try to get Gronkowski, who was second to Triple Crown winner Justify in the Belmont Stakes, on the track for a breeze this weekend.
Brown also has 2017 Eclipse Award winner Good Magic, second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness.
“Good Magic looks like he survived it all and looks like he’s set for a good effort in the Haskell and then move on to the Travers,” Brown said.
“Gronkowski ran so well in the Belmont and had the one work post-Belmont that went really well. I’m optimistic I can make the Travers with this horse. Unfortunately, we won’t have that prep race over the track that I wanted in the Jim Dandy, but it’s a great opportunity to run in a race at a distance I think he’ll like. It’s taking me week-by-week with this horse.”
The tricky part about getting success at the Belmont spring-summer to transfer to Saratoga is that the 40 racing days of the Spa meet offer such a compressed window of opportunity.
Not only is there little wiggle room from a scheduling standpoint, but everybody with a good horse guns for a victory here, so there are no soft spots.
” I’m running a year-round business here. As much as I’d like to save all my horses for Saratoga, it’s just not practical from a business standpoint,” Brown said.
“One of the things I say this time of year, because it’s very true, is you have to work for every win here. There’s not a race that I sit up in the box seat and watch them go in the gate and think, ‘Oh, this horse is definitely going to win.’ Not one. Because I know how difficult it is. Anything can happen here. So I try to do the best I can to prepare the horses to run well and have to pick the right races on the right days for them to deliver. That’s my job.”
RIP MANNY YCAZA
Hall of Fame jockey Manny Ycaza died Monday in New York after a brief illness at the age of 80.
Among the top horses he rode were Dr. Fager, Damascus and the filly Dark Mirage. Widely credited with opening the door for Latino riders in North America, the Panamanian was inducted to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1964.
Perhaps his most memorable moment at Saratoga came in one of the greatest runnings of the Travers, in 1962. Ycaza and Ridan ran step-for-step with Jaipur and Bill Shoemaker all the way around the track before Jaipur prevailed by a nose in a tight photo finish.
Ycaza won four Saratoga riding titles, including 1959 with what was then a record 41 victories.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: