SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Jim Bond — trademark “007” mask covering his nose and mouth — was talking to some reporters when the only horse on the track galloped by.
It was one of his, so he could identify it as a 3-year-old daughter of 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. And he could identify the filly’s owners, “the people who own that house right there,” he said, pointing to a property on Fifth Avenue, with its backyard abutting the Oklahoma Training Track.
Racing, sort of, returned to our backyard on Thursday morning.
Whether fans will be allowed to watch it in person remains in question.
The 2020 Saratoga Race Course meet isn’t scheduled to begin until July 16, but the Oklahoma was opened for training seven weeks behind schedule, a welcome sight for horsemen like Bond and Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who keep a string of horses here for workouts from mid-April to early fall most years.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has pitchforked schedules into the manure pit, but racing in New York has sprung back to life this week, with the resumption of live racing, at Belmont Park, and the beginning of training at the Oklahoma, across Union Avenue from Saratoga.
Besides Mott and Bond, Chad Brown had some horses on the track, and the barns, which were opened on Tuesday, will continue to fill up throughout June.
Mott, who brought 15 in on Wednesday, 10 on Thursday and will have 10 more come in on Friday, said he agrees with the New York Racing Association’s decision to bring racing north from New York for the intense seven weeks of the traditional Saratoga meet.
“I think they should run up here, sure,” he said. “I’m hoping that once we get our foot in the door with politicians, then they’ll allow the owners in. I’ve got some owners panicking that they’re not going to be able to come out and see their horse. I’m telling you, they’re on edge.
“Hopefully, we can start that down at Belmont and it’ll carry over to here. Then, hopefully, we can get a crowd here. It would be such a waste not to. Everybody’s trying to be careful, and maybe this thing will run its course a little bit.”
Tracks across the country, including Belmont and Aqueduct, which stopped running on March 16, have been running spectator-free.
If that continues to be the case in New York on July 16, the Saratoga scene would be a vastly different one from any in the history of the track, which was erected in 1864, after an inaugural year of racing on the Oklahoma side of the street.
Saratoga drew over 1 million in paid attendance last summer over the course of 39 live racing days, one of which was canceled because of a heat wave.
“It would be very sad. The fans make it,” said Bond, who saddled Will’s Way to a Travers victory in 1996. “That roar of the crowd, it makes the jockeys stronger, it makes the horses stronger. It’s something. There’s just nothing like it. When you’ve got those big days, you can just feel the rafters shake. It’s heaven.”
“It would be pretty weird,” Mott said. “We’d do it, but it would be pretty weird. The excitement of coming up here is the excitement from the crowd. We deal with little or no crowds throughout the course of the year. But up here, even on a Wednesday, you look around and say, ‘Geez, it’s a little quiet around here.’ You’re looking for the big crowds.”
The return to live racing couldn’t have come at a better time for horsemen in New York, especially the smaller outfits desperate for some return on the substantial investment in their Thoroughbreds.
Another challenge has been mapping out training programs with no clear racing goals to target.
“I can honestly tell you that when the governor announced that he was going to let us open the doors, there were tears in my eyes. Because we were in big trouble,” Bond said.
“It’s expensive. Just to keep a horse on a farm and feed him, that’s an extra $12,000 a year. They’re not a dog and a cat. You can’t go out and get dog food. And these are athletes. They really need to do something. If you’ve got a 2-year-old, he’s like a child. What’re you going to do, lock him in a box until he’s 8 years old?”
“It’s been very difficult,” Mott said. “You’re looking, well, where are these stakes positioned that you normally would’ve been looking for? You’ve got a 3-year-old that could run … well, when are they going to announce the race, how much is it, when is it, are they changing the distance? It’s kind of a day-by-day thing.”
Mott said he expects NYRA will move the Travers, which would run on Aug. 29 under normal circumstances, to earlier in the meet, since the Kentucky Derby was postponed from the first Saturday in May to Sept. 5.
Many of the same horses will be aiming for both races.
That all assumes that there won’t be a spike in the pandemic that forces a rollback on some of the phased-in allowances that have been occurring.
A long list of health and safety practices have been introduced at the NYRA tracks based on New York State Dept. of Health and CDC guidelines.
“It must work,” Mott said. “For my own self, usually during the wintertime, I’ll get a cold, or in the spring I’ll get a normal cough and cold. This year, nothing. But it must be from not getting on a plane, keeping your distance. So that works. And, hopefully, it works for the COVID as well. I’m sure a lot of the things they put in place are helping.”
“I’m just hoping and praying nobody gets sick,” Bond said. “Everybody’s high-fiving that we’re rolling [at Belmont] today, and I don’t want to be a pessimist, but you have two jockeys get sick this week, and then all of a sudden it all comes to a flying halt.”
Mott, who was inducted into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame in 1998, is approaching 5,000 career wins in North America.
He had 4,997 heading into Thursday. No. 4,000 came at Saratoga, when Mystic won on Aug. 7 of 2010.
“It’s a lot of trips to the paddock, is all I can tell you,” he said. “It’s nice, but once it happens, it’s on to the next one. It doesn’t last very long for anybody else, either. ‘OK, Mott reached 5,000, OK, turn the page and … who do you like in the double?’ The game’s not about me. It’s bigger than just me, and if I win 5,000, fine, but I’m just a small part of it.”
AROUND THE TRACKS
With a compressed stakes schedule in its 25-day spring/summer meet, Belmont Park will waste no time jumping into stakes action, as there are four graded stakes on Saturday’s card, led by a wide-open field in the Grade I Carter at seven furlongs.
The card also marks the long-awaited return of 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor, who hasn’t raced since a seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Classic last November and is the 6-5 morning-line favorite in the Grade III Westchester at a mile and a sixteenth.
“He had a very good winter, and we’re really looking forward to getting him started,” trainer Shug McGaughey told NYRA. “He’s always been very athletic, and now he’s had some time to grow up, so we’ll see how it goes.
“I liked the distance for him. I think one of his best races last year was the Dwyer going one mile. It’s just about getting him started. We’re in it to win, but as long as we can get a good effort out of him where we can move forward, we’ll be happy, too.”
As a measure of how balanced the 11-horse Carter field is, the favorite, Performer, is 3-1 on the morning line, and three others are 4-1 or lower.
Performer, also trained by McGaughey, has won four straight but has raced just five times and only once in a stakes, the Grade III Discovery at Aqueduct in his last start in November.
The Carter field includes Mind Control, who won the Hopeful at Saratoga in 2018 and the Grade I Allen Jerkens last year.
“We expected a tough race in the Carter and the race office has assembled a top-notch field from top to bottom,” Mind Control’s trainer Greg Sacco said. …
In the reconfigured schedule of races with Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks qualifying points, Santa Anita will hold its Derby and Oaks on Saturday, which were postponed from April 4.
After seeing Nadal retired with an injury and Charlatan reported as one of the horses who tested positive for a drug overage in the Arkansas Derby, trainer Bob Baffert will send out No. 3 from his top three undefeated Derby prospects, Authentic, at Santa Anita.
Authentic last ran in the San Felipe on March 7.
Baffert told the Daily Racing Form that he’s planning to send Charlatan to Belmont Park on June 20 for either the Belmont Stakes or the Woody Stephens. A second test on the drug overage is pending.
The top 3-year-old filly in North America, Swiss Skydiver, is entered in the Santa Anita Oaks. …
On Wednesday, Maximum Security had his first published workout since being moved to Baffert’s barn, breezing four furlongs in 49.60 at Santa Anita.
The 3-year-old male Eclipse Award winner last raced on Feb. 29, winning the inaugural Saudi Cup, but in March owner Gary West transferred him out of the barn of Jason Servis, who was arrested and indicted on charges of administering illegal substances to horses. Servis has pleaded not guilty.