SARATOGA SPRINGS — Break out the Funfetti, it’s opening day at Saratoga Race Course.
Trainer Jeremiah Englehart has horses named Funfetti, Giant Boo Boo and Elegant Jem entered in three consecutive races on the card. Barring scratches — and since Giant Boo Boo could draw into the sixth if that turf race is moved to the main track because of rain — Englehart and his stable workers will have to be on top of their game to hustle their horses into place in rapid-fire succession.
It can make for a stressful afternoon, but that’s the game. This year, though, some of that stress could be alleviated by a new weekly schedule that brings two days off from racing per week as opposed to the traditional one dark day.
After the first partial week from Thursday to next Sunday, there will be no racing on Monday or Tuesday throughout the meet covering eight weeks, until the closing day card on Labor Day Monday, Sept. 2.
A sporting venue built in 1864 where interested parties are intensely protective of history and traditions, the New York Racing Association has expanded the Saratoga meet on the calendar while adding an extra day off from racing each week. Based on research by National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame historian Allan Carter, the July 11 start in 2019 ties 1882 for the earliest-ever opening day at Saratoga.
NYRA hasn’t committed to keeping this schedule beyond next summer, when construction conflicts at Belmont Park should decrease, but it’s difficult to believe that the new meet format won’t be extended beyond that. No matter what, people directly involved with the horses have welcomed the change, since it removes the intensity of a six-day racing week.
“I like five days,” Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said this week. “I think they’re opening a little early, but I like the five days. They could make it four days, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I think, overall, it’ll be beneficial for everyone, even the people who work in the barns,” Englehart said. “There’s a lot of pressure on race days, and they get a couple afternoons where they can kind of relax and not worry about the stress of running in the afternoon, as well.”
“A, it’s good for the horses to get more chances to run. B, it gives the backside and everybody a little break,” owner Bob Baron said. “It gets a little intense for the workers, the trainers. It stretches out the meet. What’s the rush? You exhaust the fans, too. I’m just as happy, because with my business and so forth, I get another day to get work in before I’m trying to squeeze the horse racing in, too.”
Baron, a Voorheesville resident who played quarterback at RPI from 1969-71 and operates two Albany-based trucking companies, owns Promises Fulfilled, who swept the Amsterdam and Allen Jerkens at Saratoga last summer, a spectacular stakes double by a sprinter who is back at Saratoga and aiming for more graded stakes.
Like last year with the Amsterdam and Allen Jerkens, the races Promises Fulfilled could be targeting this year, the A.G. Vanderbilt and Forego, are comfortably placed four weeks apart.
But the new stretched-out calendar should offer more opportunities for horsemen to consider running back a second time at the meet. This could be especially important for the 2-year-olds, who are starting to get more active on the race schedule this time of year.
“We’ve got a lot of 2-year-olds to run, and hopefully one of them will break their maiden early,” Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. “Then we’ll have something to run in a stakes later.”
“If you get started the first couple weeks, there’s probably no reason you shouldn’t run twice here,” Mott said.
Carter’s research pulled him through official race charts all the way back to the inaugural Saratoga meet in 1863, when it was held on what is now the Horse Haven on the Oklahoma Training Track before moving across Union Avenue to the current site in 1864.
The first meet comprised a total of four days of racing from Aug. 3 to Aug. 8.
The first big year-to-year leap in number of racing days came in 1877, from 14 in 1876 to 21.
By 1882 and that previous July 11 start, the meet totaled 40 racing days for the first time, which the modern day number equaled beginning in 2010, after 19 seasons with at least 30.
For over a century, Sunday was a dark day, until the 24-day meet in 1975, a development that lasted one season, before Sunday racing resumed (Tuesdays were dark) for good in 1979.
Other than the well-known gaps in racing at Saratoga due to the abolition of gambling on horse racing in 1911-12 and the travel restrictions due to World War II, Carter turned up some interesting one-day cancellations.
Besides weather-related events, the 1923 meet lost a day in honor of the recently deceased President Warren G. Harding, and on Aug. 4, 1885, there was no racing while the body of the recently deceased Ulysses S. Grant was transported from Wilton through Saratoga to Albany for a train ride to his burial in New York City.
July became a regular participant in “The August Place to Be” when the meet expanded from 24 days to 30 in 1991, despite some protest that a longer meet would harm the Saratoga mystique.
Not to be deterred, NYRA expanded to 34 days in 1994, 36 in 1997 and 40 in 2010.
In 2019, that 40 will be spread over eight more days of calendar.
“It’s a good thing,” McGaughey said. “It gives everybody a little bit of a break. If they were going to extend the meet running six days a week, then I was going to be opposed to it. I think they’ll have a little bit of a problem even at five days a week if they try to run too many [races per day], just because of the horse population.”
“We’re going, going, going,” Mott said. “If you’ve got a large stable, you’re at the races all day. It gives you a chance to take care of other facets of the business. We have other stables down at Belmont you have to go see. It frees you up a little bit. I doubt anybody’s going to take two days off during the week, but it keeps you from hanging out at the races all day six days a week.”
“A lot of horses that ship in will have a little longer time to run back, because it’s eight weeks versus six weeks, where you ship a horse in and only get one turn out of them,” Baron said. “Here, if we have to wait two weeks to get into the first race, you still have a chance to run at the back end.”
For a young 2-year-old filly like Funfetti, who has never raced, opening day will also be the opening of her career.
Odds are much better this year than in the past that, if she runs well on Thursday, she could get another crack at the Spa by Labor Day.
“I like it a lot better, not knowing how it’ll be,” Englehart said. “But I just figure, for everyone, it’ll be better. Whether it’s the businesses in town, where people get to spend a couple more days outside of the track. The jockeys are going six days a week, that’s a constant struggle.”