SARATOGA SPRINGS — Country Grammer mixed it up with Caracaro down the stretch, then winning trainer Chad Brown had mixed emotions in the winner’s circle.
His colt Country Grammer re-rallied during a stretch duel to take the Grade III Peter Pan Stakes on a gray day at Saratoga Race Course bereft of crowd noise in the grandstand, but finally busy with racing on the track.
The 152nd Saratoga meet began on Thursday with no spectators allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was without any fanfare that Country Grammer won what typically is a prep for the Belmont Stakes in May but became the opening day co-feature under a jumbled stakes schedule.
Brown now is thinking about sending Country Grammer to the Aug. 8 Travers Stakes, but for a Mechanicville native whose family still occupies the same Saratoga picnic table every day that they’ve had for decades, he couldn’t help but yearn for a time when they’ll let the fans back in.
“Yeah, it’s been a tough day, walking around,” he said. “I never thought I’d see that. It’s really nice to win this race, but it’s definitely a bittersweet day, when this beautiful place is empty where I grew up.
“Just try to get through the meet, hold out hope maybe it’ll open up a little more during the meet, but there’s definitely no guarantees about that. You know, just do the best we can. Thankfully, they’re running here, at least. Hopefully, this will be the only year we have to do this.
Despite news on Wednesday that the New York Racing Association would be allowed to let a limited number of owners in on days that they have horses running, odds seem firmly against the possibility of fans getting in at some point.
So the other 39 race days up to Sept. 7 should resemble Thursday’s opening day, no matter who’s running and how big the stakes.
The Travers has been moved up three weeks earlier than usual, which puts it just three weeks after the Peter Pan, but Brown didn’t express any concern about the Travers coming up too quickly for Country Grammer, who was coming off a third-place finish in an allowance at Belmont Park on June 4.
“Obviously, the logical thing is to go on to the Travers at a mile and a quarter,” Brown said. “I don’t have a problem with the distance, but to see if he’s good enough. He’s an improving horse, he hasn’t run too many times. I think there’s room for improvement here, and it’s a race that we had hoped to get him to.”
Country Grammer and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. slipped through on the inside as they came off the grandstand turn to engage Caracaro at the eighth pole, then pulled slightly ahead while making contact with Caracaro inside the sixteenth pole and got up to win by a neck.
“He’s a fighter,” Ortiz said. “Chad’s horses finish really good. I never gave up, and I was lucky he came back.”
“I think he got tired the last part of the race, he hadn’t run in such a long time,” Javier Castellano said of Caracaro. “I’m very satisfied with how he did it today. He was only beat a little bit and I’m not disappointed at all. I’m excited for his future.”
In the co-feature, Dayoutoftheoffice, who went off at almost 20-1 in the betting, rolled by six lengths under Junior Alvarado to win the Grade III Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies, her second victory in two starts this year.
“She broke good and put me in a good spot and I was for sure a smiling person the whole way around,” Alvarado said. “I knew what I had under me and she responded very well when I asked her turning for home.”
Heavy favorite Beautiful Memories, who was 6-5 on the morning line and bet down to 1-2, stumbled out of the gate and was pulled up by jockey Jose Ortiz at the eighth pole. She was walked back to trainer Mark Casse’s barn.
“She stumbled out of the gate and was traveling OK, but she was getting a lot of dirt in her face,” Ortiz said. “Going into the turn, she switched leads and I noticed she wasn’t traveling well, so I decided to take care of her. It was a tough decision to make. She had a small cut on her right front. I don’t think it’s serious.”
In the first race to be run without spectators, Grit and Glory won under jockey Luis Cardenas for trainer Linda Rice, who won a Saratoga training title in 2009.
“Very strange, but winning is still the same,” Rice said. “Whether it’s Belmont or Saratoga, it’s exciting to win a race.
“The horsemen, like myself and my peers, are so happy to be back racing. We just need to support the industry. But we really miss the fans. It’s just not the same without them, and I sure hope we come here next year that they are here with us.”
Brown won’t wait long to exert the power of his turf division, as he has four entered in the $85,000 De La Rose for fillies and mares 4 and up in the first of two overnight stakes on Friday’s card.
Among them is Blowout, the 3-1 morning-line favorite not counting Bridlewood Cat, who is even money but entered for main track only.
She finished behind stablemate Regal Glory in the Lake George and Lake Placid at Saratoga last year but compiled a 3-4-1 record from eight starts in 2019 and will be making her 2020 debut in the De La Rose.
Brown’s other three in the race, Catch a Bid, Noor Sahara and Viadera, each have started once this year, in June.
Noor Sahara had been racing in France before just missing by a head in a mile-and-an-eighth allowance at Belmont Park on June 12.
“It might have been a little far for her,” Brown told the New York Racing Association. “She hadn’t run in a while off that effort so now she has that race under her belt. Cutting her back to a mile should do her some good.”
Catch a Bid won the Riskaverse on a yielding course at Saratoga last year.
Viadera is another Brown entrant who will be making her second start in North America after racing in Europe. She ran fourth to stablemate Newspaperofrecord in the Intercontinental on a yielding course at Belmont on June 6.
Xenobia is cross-entered in the De La Rose and the Grade III Matchmaker on the Haskell card at Monmouth Park on Saturday, but trainer Jonathan Thomas said she’ll stay in Saratoga and race here.
She ran into a monster last time, finishing fifth to the Brown-trained Rushing Fall in the Beaugay at Belmont on June 3.
“Clearly, she had a very tough assignment first time off the break running against Rushing Fall,” Thomas said. “But she ran a respectable [speed] number and came out of it well.
“It sounds like we might get some rain tomorrow [Friday], which would be super helpful for her. She appreciated a bit of cut in the ground.”
Brown has the 6-5 favorite in the other stakes on the card, the $85,000 Shine Again for fillies and mares at seven furlongs on the main track.
Indian Pride is lightly raced, but easily won an allowance on the Belmont Stakes card on June 20.
OWNER ADMISSION APPLICATIONS
With Saratoga opening up to a limited number of racehorse owners to attend the races as of Friday, owners who need to renew their license are directed to visit the New York State Gaming Commission office located on the second floor of Clark’s Cottage located outside the gates of Saratoga Race Course at the end of Frank Sullivan Place off Nelson Avenue.
Hours of operation are 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
In order to reduce density and adhere to social distancing guidelines, the size of the ownership group will be restricted to eight individuals in possession of a NYSGC license per horse. With the exception of Friday’s card, the application must be received 24 hours in advance of race day.
No same-day applications will be accepted. All owners within the group must be in possession of a valid NYSGC license.
Horses with identical ownership will be limited to eight total admissions regardless of number of horses running that day.
Those individuals in need of renewing their NYRA identification are directed to the attention of Lewis Kobel, NYRA Security ID Clerk, at the Horsemen’s Credentials Office located on the first floor of Clark’s Cottage. Hours of operation are 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Owners seeking access to the Saratoga barn area for training will be required to register with racing administrative assistant Zerfana Khan (718) 659-2313 or [email protected]. Only licensed owners will be allowed. No guests and no children.
All owners must provide to NYRA a negative COVID-19 test taken within seven days of arrival to Saratoga or a positive COVID-19 antibody test. Test results should be sent to Zerfana Khan for clearance.
Owner applications for admission to Saratoga Race Course are to be sent to NYRA’s Horsemen’s Relations Associate, via email at [email protected] or by phone at 516-488-6008. NYRA will confirm all reservations via email. NYRA cannot consider or accept same day applications.