SARATOGA SPRINGS — During a 15-minute interview covering a variety of topics on Wednesday morning, trainer Barclay Tagg said at one point:
“As the great Allen Jerkens said, ‘The only thing certain in this game is nothing is certain.'”
It could have been an appropriate answer for just about any of the questions.
Welcome to the 2020 Saratoga Race Course meet.
A year ago, the New York Racing Association surpassed $700 million in betting handle for the first time.
The 2019 meet lost a day to a heat wave, but still surpassed 1 million in paid admission.
Business was rock-solid for NYRA, the racing was typically terrific, and fans soaked it all in.
Any certitude that 2020 would follow the natural progression in that direction evaporated like a palmful of hand sanitizer and was washed away like soap suds down the drain, when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
So the 152nd Saratoga meet will open on Thursday with no spectators allowed, although racehorse owners got some belated good news on Wednesday when NYRA was allowed by New York state to let some of them in starting Friday.
Much of the attention will be on Tiz the Law, whose owners in Sackatoga Stable hope to win the Travers Stakes, and if they do, they won’t have to wait as long as usual, since it has been moved to the fourth Saturday of the meet in a nod to the rescheduled Triple Crown series.
Racing is one sport that has enjoyed some continuity through the pandemic, but closing the doors to fans has created a surreal quality to the live product, and that will especially be evident at Saratoga, where the fan experience comfortably dovetails with the sporting side of it.
Beyond the spectators, at least one familiar face who will be missing is Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will keep his string of horses in Kentucky because of travel concerns related to the pandemic.
“It’s been 41, 42 years, and it won’t be the same without him,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant who has won 13 Spa training titles and will be eligible for the Hall of Fame himself next year.
“I was first around it [no spectators at the track] at Gulfstream with Point of Honor,” trainer George Weaver said on Wednesday. “It’s an eerie feeling, like something out of a sci-fi movie or something, just the whole thing, everything in general.
“I guess we need to do what we’ve got to do, and everyone’s just trying to stay safe and keep this thing from getting out of hand.”
“It’ll be different without fans, but I thought we should’ve stayed downstate, anyway,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “I hope it all works out for them, but I think it’s a big disregard for us, having to move to a different place with a lot of different people. And everything was going really good at Belmont.”
Part of that effort by NYRA has been to impose a lockdown on the jockey colony, whose members won’t be allowed to come back if they ship out of town, while out-of-town riders will be barred from shipping in.
The idea was in the works during the lead-up to the meet and took on a greater sense of urgency after a spate of positive tests for COVID-19 for some big-name riders.
Then Del Mar in California announced on Wednesday that it was canceling its cards on Friday, Saturday and Sunday because of another spike in positives among jockeys.
Pletcher had to find a new rider for Dr Post in Saturday’s Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, since Irad Ortiz Jr. can’t afford to leave town and then be barred from coming back to a meet that he has won twice in the last five years.
“With a lot of guys traveling and some of them come back positive, I think they were in a position where they had to take a stand to try to protect NYRA’s interests,” Pletcher said.
“The one thing I’ve seen since the middle of March is I’ve made more jockey changes this year than the other 23 years I’ve been training. Javier [Castellano] was out, Johnny [Velazquez]was going to Dubai, and then he wasn’t going to Dubai. Javier got it [COVID], then some guys chose to stay at Gulfstream. Irad decided not to ride for a little while, and some guys just went to Kentucky. So it’s been a juggling act for sure.”
“I think it was a very logical step in light of what just happened,” Weaver said. “There were several jockeys that traveled to multiple locations in a short period of time, and it would make sense that they would want to stop that, because it looked like that was an elevated risk factor.”
Ortiz’s brother, Jose, won the Saratoga riding title for the third time in four years last season.
They frequently work for trainer Chad Brown, the three-time Eclipse Award winner who has earned three Saratoga titles in the last four years and will be a seemingly unbeatable force again in 2020.
One of the most prestigious races on the jumbled stakes schedule, the Grade I Whitney on Aug. 1, is expected to produce an interesting matchup between Tom’s d’Etat and 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor, trained by McGaughey.
Champion Midnight Bisou is targeting the Personal Ensign on Whitney Day, and likely will face the Weaver-trained Point of Honor, who was second to Midnight Bisou’s stablemate, She’s a Julie, in the Ogden Phipps on June 13.
Weaver has one of the best older dirt horses in the country in his barn, Met Mile winner Vekoma. He’ll point toward the Forego on Aug. 29.
Tagg has the buzz horse, though, in Tiz the Law, who won the Belmont Stakes and is the top-ranked 3-year-old colt in North America.
Tiz the Law began his career with a victory at Saratoga last summer, and settled back in after shipping from Belmont Park on Monday.
“You always see potential when they win first time out, but you don’t really know until you look at who the competition was that day,” Tagg said. “It could be nine or 10 of the worst 2-year-olds in the world that nobody knew about yet. But when they do it easily and they come out of it good, it makes you think about the future, that’s for sure.
“We all think about the future, any time a horse wins first time, you can’t help it. That’s the name of the game here.”