Saratoga Race Course set for another blockbuster stakes schedule

Swiss Skydiver, working with exercise rider Danny Ramsey last Saturday, is pointing toward the Shuvee and Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
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Swiss Skydiver, working with exercise rider Danny Ramsey last Saturday, is pointing toward the Shuvee and Personal Ensign at Saratoga.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Post time for the first race of the day at Saratoga Race Course on Thursday will be 7 a.m.

That’s when the gates open to the public, who surely will be showing a good turn of foot scrambling to reserve picnic tables in the back yard.

The real running starts at 1:05 p.m., though, post time for the first race of the 153rd Saratoga meet.

The meet will kick off with a low-priced claiming race, and fans, locked out of the track by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, probably won’t mind any kind of live action they can get at this point. But they won’t have to wait long for the serious racing fireworks to blast off.

Saratoga will offer 76 stakes races carrying purses totaling $21.5 million, including 20 Grade I races, the first of which is the Diana for fillies and mares on the turf on Saturday.

Three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, a Mechanicville native who has won the Saratoga meet title three times since 2016, has won the Diana the last five years (six overall) and has two top contenders in on Saturday. He has noticed an uptick in anticipation for the 2021 meet, not just because fans missed it last year, but for the usual buzz of outstanding racing for 40 days through Labor Day Sept. 6.

“Things are looking pretty lively already around here,” he said on Tuesday morning.

“Really, sort of a depressing meet last year. We tried to maintain some positivity. NYRA did offer a lot of nice races up here, and we had a lot of good horses to run and won some nice races, but it’s so different, to go through it with no fans there, no family. It was just a very empty feeling throughout the meet for everybody.”

“I think it’s going to feel … normal again,” said Todd Pletcher, who will be inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in August. The bigger question is how strange did last year feel. Saratoga is the one place where we race that has the most electric crowd, and the most enthusiastic crowd. The fans are very knowledgeable. It’s what you’ve grown accustomed to your whole career.

“Last year just didn’t seem right.”

“I think the place is ready to explode,” said veteran trainer Jim Bond, who has a farm in Stillwater. “Every phone call, every person I talk to about Saratoga, they just can’t wait to get here and get going. I think it’s going to be a coming-out party like they’ve never seen before.”

The stakes schedule will get going on Thursday with the Quick Call turf sprint for 3-year-olds and the Grade III Schuylerville, the first in the series of graded stakes on the dirt restricted to 2-year-olds.

After the Diana on Saturday, some of the biggest highlights of the meet will be Whitney Day Aug. 7, the Alabama for 3-year-old fillies on Aug. 21 and Travers Day Aug. 28, with closing weekend featuring a new addition, the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, historically won at Belmont Park but moved earlier to Saratoga to bolster what should be a field of Breeders’ Cup Classic hopefuls.

Although the Travers is still well over a month away, it’s easy to identify an early favorite, the Brad Cox-trained Essential Quality, the 2020 champion 2-year-old male. His only career loss was a fourth by just a length to Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby, and that result is still pending after Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test.

If Medina Spirit ultimately is disqualified, the Derby would be handed to another of Cox’s top 3-year-old’s, Mandaloun, who was second.

After the Haskell at Monmouth Park, Mandaloun could wind up in the $1.25 million Travers against his stablemate Essential Quality.

Another intriguing Travers hopeful is undefeated but lightly raced First Captain, trained by Shug McGaughey. He easily won the Dwyer at Belmont on July 5, a race that the McGaughey-trained Code of Honor won prior to winning the Travers in 2019, although Code of Honor was much more experienced by the time he got to the Dwyer.

Pletcher and Brown are in scramble mode trying to get a horse to the Travers.

They’ll both use the Curlin on July 30 to gauge whether Wood Memorial runner-up Dynamic One (Pletcher) and the very lightly raced Miles D (Brown) are worthy of Travers consideration.

“Miles D is a nice horse, we’ve always thought a lot of him,” Brown said. “He got hurt last year as a 2-year-old. He was one of my main Derby hopes, really. He had all the markings to maybe get on the trail, and then that happened and I missed everything.

“I’ve been waiting to run him in the Curlin. He probably doesn’t have the seasoning to catch up that fast, but I’m going to give him a chance.”

Before Dynamic One gets to the Curlin, his next assignment will be a breeze this weekend, which will serve the dual role of getting him sharp, but also keeping his stablemate, Malathaat, on her toes, as they regularly breeze in company together.

If Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality is the leader of the 3-year-old male division, Pletcher’s Malathaat is even more clearly the leader of the 3-year-old fillies. She’s undefeated from five career starts, and won a fierce stretch duel over the Brown-trained Search Results in the Kentucky Oaks.

Malathaat is so good that Pletcher was considering running her against males in the Belmont — he won it with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007 — but pulled back on that to give her a breather from the schedule.

“We were very serious about it,” he said. “We just felt like she had those two races four weeks apart, and I thought she just lost a little bit of weight, and my biggest concern was if she had a really hard race in the Belmont, it might knock her out for the entire summer and even longer.

“So we felt like freshening her up at that time and by waiting for the CCA Oaks, hopefully the Alabama, we could duplicate what we did when she went from the Demoiselle being freshened to the Ashland and three weeks back to the Kentucky Oaks. So far, it’s all gone according to plan, and we’re looking forward to getting going again. If the Belmont had been two or three weeks later, maybe we would’ve.”

The CCA Oaks is July 24, and the next logical step for horses targeting that race is the Aug. 21 Alabama.

Brown said Search Results will skip those longer dirt stakes in favor of the seven-furlong Test on Aug. 7, but will have no qualms about eventually getting her back to a mile and an eighth, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff distance.

“I thought she had some tough races back-to-back-to-back,” Brown said, “from the race right before the Kentucky Oaks at Aqueduct [Gazelle], to the Oaks, which was a gut-wrenching race to lay it on the line, and then another one back in five weeks in the Acorn, where she was really running to the wire to hold on.

“Those were taxing efforts. More than the distance of seven-eighths — because she ran really great in the Oaks at a mile and an eighth, I’m not afraid to run her a mile and an eighth — it’s really the time.”

He could send Mother Goose runner-up Always Carina to the CCA Oaks, but might wait until the Test with her, too.

“They’re two nice fillies, but obviously the leader of the division right now is Malathaat,” Brown said.

Last year’s Alabama winner, Swiss Skydiver, who went on to beat males in the Preakness during the pandemic-distorted 2020 scedule, is at Saratoga and pointing toward the Shuvee on July 25 and Personal Ensign on Aug. 28, Travers Day.

The three top contenders for the Whitney are Pegasus World Cup winner Knicks Go, who returned to his winning ways with an easy victory in the Cornhusker for Cox; Maxfield, whose only career loss is a third in the Santa Anita Handicap; and the Steve Asmussen-trained Silver State, who is riding a six-race winning streak, most recently the Grade I Met Mile on Belmont Day June 5.

“Good race,” Cox said of the potential Whitney matchup. “Our horse, he ran the way he was training in the Cornhusker. It gave us enough confidence to go into the Whitney, as long as he’s training well over the next few weeks.

“The Met Mile, we took a step back there [fourth as the 4-5 betting favorite]. I don’t think it has anything to do with how he was training, because he was definitely training the part. We wouldn’t have taken a shot if he wasn’t. For whatever reason, he’s just a better horse around two turns and has proved that. We’ll get two turns in the Whitney.”

The competition for the jockey’s meet title has been dominated by the Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, who won three each in the last six years, but there is a load of talent right behind them looking to win the big races.

Saratoga training championships have been a big part of Pletcher’s now-Hall of Fame career, and he and Brown have been duking it out the last few years, after a short burst of domination by Brown.

“Last year, everything sort of fell in place,” Pletcher said. “In order to win meets, you have to have conditions, maidens, one-other-thans, things like that you can win.

“For one, I don’t think our stable is quite balanced enough yet to win a title, and it’s going to be a super-tough meet. There’s some strong outfits here, and I think Kentucky’s going to be well represented.”

“It’s a lot like a golf tournament,” Brown said. “You’ve got guys with leads, you’re going into last week last year, you’re seven strokes up, and then all of a sudden on the back nine, it falls apart. Whether it’s weather, couple favorites get beat, somebody gets hot, birdies three holes … then all of a sudden you can get beat.

“This meet is a lot like a four-day major. What you try to do is have a steady meet, top to bottom. You know you’re going to have some tough beats and rain-offs, and you’re going to lose some races you should’ve won. You try to win a few you didn’t plan on winning.”

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