In at least one way, the Saratoga Race Course meet didn’t even really happen for many horse racing fans in 2020.
With fans banned from the grounds because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like a ghost town for the duration of the meet from July 16 to Sept. 7.
But one thing that wasn’t missing was a cavalcade of terrific racing from many of the biggest stars in the sport, and the meet, as usual, has exerted a strong influence on the Breeders’ Cup races that will be held Friday and Saturday at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky.
Of the 184 horses entered in 14 Breeders’ Cup races, 55 raced at Saratoga, representing 32 victories. Eight of the morning-line favorites and one co-favorite crossed the Saratoga finish line, even if it was to the silence of empty stands.
Among the Saratoga runners was Travers winner Tiz the Law, the 3-1 second choice in Saturday’s $6 million Classic who is owned by the Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga Stable, and a cavalry charge from trainer Chad Brown, a Mechanicville native who will saddle 13 Breeders’ Cup horses over the two days.
He has his typically strong hand in the turf races, with four entered in the Filly and Mare Turf, a race Brown has won four times since 2012, and three entered in the Mile. Ten of his 13 BC horses used a path to Keeneland that went through the Spa.
“I think it’s a very strong, diverse group,” Brown said this week. “We have some turf, some dirt, some 2-year-olds … some 6-year-olds. We have a little bit of everything, and it goes to show the versatility and the depth of our stable.”
No fans will be allowed at the Breeders’ Cup, a development that racing in particular and sports in general have experienced for months.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Brown said. “I feel it as much as them. I love being in front of the fans, I love showing off the horses. It’s one of the best parts of the job. That’s been tough all year, and it was really felt at Saratoga. It just wasn’t anywhere near the same. It’s part of professional sports, thriving off the fans.”
Nevertheless, Brown will be loaded, especially in the Filly and Mare Turf, where he has 5-2 favorite Rushing Fall, Sistercharlie, My Sister Nat and Nay Lady Nay.
Sistercharlie won the BC Filly and Mare Turf in 2018, but got a late start to her 2020 season, finishing third in the Grade II Ballston Spa to Starship Jubilee and third to Rushing Fall in the Grade I Diana.
“She’s the favorite for the race, and she’s had the best season,” Brown said of Rushing Fall. “They’re four really nice horses that any trainer would love to have just one of them.
“Between her [Sistercharlie] and Rushing Fall being their last start, it’s hard to move past. They’re individually horses of a lifetime for any trainer, and to have both of them in the same race is great fortune for our team.”
Besides Tiz the Law, horses in the Classic who ran at Saratoga include 5-2 favorite Improbable, winner of the Whitney; By My Standards, second in the Whitney; Tom’s d’Etat, who was third in the Whitney after stumbling at the start; and Global Campaign and Tacitus, 1-2, respectively, in the Woodward.
The third by Tom’s d’Etat in the Whitney, for which he was the even-money betting favorite, was a particularly painful moment for trainer Al Stall Jr.
After Improbable reared at the starting gate, causing skittish behavior from others in the gate, Tom’s d’Etat lost all chance at the break and still got up for third.
In the 10-horse Classic, Tom’s d’Etat drew the No. 4 post, and Improbable drew the 8.
“I’m glad we’re far away from Improbable for obvious reasons,” Stall said. “I just want to break cleanly like he normally does. He’s a very good gate horse.
“I’m going to assume that the Whitney’s an aberration. It’s totally out of my hands, but I like the set-up. I’d say he was focused in on Improbable and rearing up and was distracted by that, like two others, Code of Honor and By My Standards.
“We let him down a little bit after the Whitney, got the warm month of August out of the way and he’s back to breezing sharp.”
Tiz the Law breezed regularly on the Saratoga main track after having won the Belmont Stakes on June 20.
He returned to Belmont Park after dominating the Travers, then finished second to Authentic in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby before skipping the Oct. 3 Preakness. He shipped back to Kentucky in October and breezed twice at Keeneland.
“The more accustomed he gets to a place [the better he gets], like with Saratoga, you saw toward the end of the meet how aggressive he was,” exercise rider Heather Smullen said. “He’s getting that way here, and that’s a good sign. Right before the Travers was the best he’s ever been, when I’ve been on him.”
“Obviously it’s been a strange year, but we’ve had a great year,” Sackatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton said. “A little disappointment, obviously, with the Derby, but everything before that was perfect, and hopefully we can cap it off with a big race here.”
With a limited number of owners allowed on-track for the Breeders’ Cup, Sackatoga will have a party of about 30 people in Lexington, some of whom will have to watch it off-track.
Friday’s Future Stars card, featuring five BC races restricted to juveniles, will showcase nine horses who broke their maidens at Saratoga, annually a key stop during the season for top 2-year-olds.
One of the last holdouts in Saratoga was Met Mile winner Vekoma, who didn’t travel to Keeneland until Tuesday, but he spiked a fever off the plane and was scratched as the 3-1 favorite in the Sprint.
Pointed toward the Grade I Forego, he actually didn’t race at Saratoga because of some minor physical issues, but was on the grounds before the meet started and continued to train on the Oklahoma training track, most recently with a breeze on Oct. 25 for trainer George Weaver.
It was a tough blow for a horse who had put together a 2020 campaign that had elevated him to third in the NTRA national Top Thoroughbred Poll.
“We kind of thought it was his destiny to win this race and put the crown on what has already been a great year,” Weaver said. “He’s a very special horse. I’m lucky to have had a chance to train him. We’re going to take good care of the horse. That’s all we can do.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher has 4,999 career wins, and has five horses entered in the Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday, but he could hit the 5,000 milestone before the Breeders’ Cup even kicks off.
He has one horse entered on Thursday, Seize the Hay, and he’s the 8-5 favorite in a maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park.
“We’re hoping it happens soon,” Pletcher said. “It seems like a lot of times you get right on the cusp of that milestone and kind of have trouble getting through. We had five chances at Belmont over the weekend and couldn’t quite get there. In this business, you don’t get a lot of time to savor it, because you come right back with more races to go.”
Eligible for induction to the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame next year, Pletcher ranks eighth on the all-time list of trainers in total victories in North America.