SARATOGA SPRINGS — There were still hundreds of empty stalls on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch early Tuesday morning.
A thin slice of fog sat just above the turf on the infield of the Oklahoma Training Track, as horses famous — like Midnight Bisou — and not-so-famous jogged into view.
An hour later, Code of Honor, fresh off a sharp win in the Dwyer at Belmont Park, placidly nibbled grass outside trainer Shug McGaughey’s barn, fulfilling the colt’s entire work assignment for the day.
The track will be abruptly jarred out of its foggy, grass-nibbling quiet at 1 p.m. Thursday, when the starting gate rattles open for the first race of the 151st Saratoga meet.
The New York Racing Association will offer 76 stakes races worth a purse total of $20.8 million, highlighted by the $1.25 million Travers on Aug. 24. Under a new schedule configuration, the 2019 Saratoga meet will still cover 40 days of racing, but spanning an extra eight calendar days, with five racing days per week and days off on Monday and Tuesday for the bulk of the meet. It will conclude on Sept. 2.
Previously, Saratoga ran six days a week, but in an effort to cut down on some of the overlap between racing at Belmont Park and upcoming construction of a new NHL arena for the New York Islanders on the Belmont grounds, NYRA chose to head north to Saratoga earlier, while maintaining what has become the traditional closing day on Labor Day. New NYRA CEO and president David O’Rourke said they expect to break ground on the hockey arena sometime this month.
In the meantime, Saratoga will break ground on the 2019 meet with a $32,000 claiming race for 3-year-olds at 1 Thursday afternoon on a 10-race card that includes the Grade III Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies and the Grade III Quick Call, a turf sprint for 3-year-olds.
Trainer Chad Brown, with a deep and loaded stable of turf stars, as well as a possible breakout star filly in the lightly raced and undefeated Guarana, is poised to win his third Saratoga title in four years, after setting a meet record with 46 wins, and the Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, should be mixing it up with Hall of Famer Javier Castellano for the riding title.
New to the stakes calendar are the second legs of the respective Turf Triple Series, the $1 million Saratoga Derby (Aug. 4) and $750,000 Saratoga Oaks for fillies (Aug. 2).
Besides serving as an incubator for stakes-caliber 2-year-olds, Saratoga will supply a deep menu of graded stakes on the grass.
But much of the attention will focus on the 3-year-olds, with two of the most important races for fillies on the annual calendar, the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 and the Alabama on Aug. 17, and the Jim Dandy-Travers combo that typically draws colts who have been through the Triple Crown prep season and Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes wringer.
This year should be no different, and because of some bizarre circumstances and a division that no one seems to want to control, the Travers could not only be wide open, but will be an important resume filler toward the end-of-year Eclipse Award for 3-year-old male.
One of those colts who has some recent momentum is Code of Honor, who came from the back of a short field to win the Dwyer by 3 1/4 lengths on Saturday. He hadn’t run since the May 4 Kentucky Derby, when he finished third and was elevated to second due to the disqualification of the first-place finisher, Maximum Security.
McGaughey said Code of Honor should be primed for a run at the Travers via the Jim Dandy as a steppingstone.
“It would be a great scenario, if we could pull it off,” McGaughey said.
“He [Code of Honor] could jump up, and if he were to win the Travers or something, then he would sure be in the mix. He’s kind of been forgotten about, a little bit.
“He was second in the Champagne, and fourth down there [January stakes in Florida], but that was more trainer error than anything else. And he won the Fountain of Youth, he was third in the Florida Derby, was made second in the Kentucky Derby and won the Dwyer now. So he’s got a pretty good record, with still some stuff to do.”
He said the plan all along, if Code of Honor did not win the Derby, was to pull back on the race schedule and wait for the summer.
Since then, Code of Honor has matured physically and mentally, McGaughey said.
“He was a late May foal, so he’s always been sort of physically immature, as well as mentally,” he said. “And he’s done really well in that respect in the last two months. He’s filled out quite a bit. But the biggest thing is he’s an efficient little horse, and that’s kind of what makes him what he is.
“He had been training really well, and I would’ve been awfully disappointed if he didn’t run well [in the Dwyer]. For two months, everything went right. The first quarter [mile] concerned me a little bit. But I think that’s the way he wants to run. He wants to be kind of back and make one sweeping run. I was glad to see he ate the dirt good when he had to readjust and go through that hole. He did that fine, so I thought it was all good.
Also pointing toward the Travers are Preakness winner War of Will, the only horse to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, and Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, who finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby (by DQ) and Belmont.
Trainer Bill Mott said that Country House, who was elevated to the Kentucky Derby victory when Maximum Security was taken down, won’t race again until next year.
Maximum Security is pointing toward a rematch against King for a Day in the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 20, a week before the Jim Dandy.
In his first race since the Derby, Maximum Security lost to King for a Day in the Pegasus at Monmouth on June 16, the first time he didn’t hit the wire first in six career starts. That race may also draw Bob Baffert’s Mucho Gusto, too.
It’s unclear whether Maximum Security would aim for the Travers, but he would spice up that race substantially. And another good Baffert 3-year-old, 2018 2-Year-Old Male Eclipse Award winner Game Winner, has been working steadily since the Derby.
Either way, the division is as up for grabs as it can be.
“It’s very wide open,” said Bill Mott, Tacitus’ trainer. “I couldn’t even tell you who the leader of the pack is. Our horse [Country House] is out. Maximum Security got beat at Monmouth. Had he won easily, I’d say you’d have to put him at the top of the division. How can you even throw Tacitus out? I don’t think you can. He won both his preps. He’s third and second. But there’s nobody undefeated.”
“It looks like if War of Will would win another big one, he’d be up there. But anything could happen,” McGaughey said.
The Grade I $1 million Whitney is scheduled Aug.3 and should be another highlight on the calendar, especially if spectacular Met Mile winner Mitole runs, although that was the only race beyond seven furlongs in 12 career starts for him. The Whitney is a mile and an eighth.
Among those who are pointing toward the Whitney are Santa Anita Gold Cup winner Vino Rosso and Yoshida, who has bounced between graded stakes on turf and dirt, having won the Woodward last year.
Turf or dirt is a constant puzzle for Mott to solve with Yoshida, who performs well on both. He was fifth in the Fourstardave last year before switching back to dirt for the Woodward.
“He’s a Grade I winner on both, so it’s a little more confusing with a horse like that,” Mott said. “Most of your grass horses, you run them on the dirt and they get beat 20 lengths. It makes it real easy.”