SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s rare for a horse to make his graded stakes debut in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup. And then win it.
It’s even rarer for a horse to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga Race Course … as in, it’s never happened.
That changes on Saturday, after the New York Racing Association decided to move the race from early October at Belmont Park to early September at Saratoga to accommodate the schedule of horses pointing toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6.
First run in 1919, the Jockey Club Gold Cup is steeped in history and tradition and has been the highlight of the fall stakes calendar in New York for decades.
Winners include five Triple Crown champions (Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Affirmed) and the likes of Man o’ War, Kelso (five times), Easy Goer, Cigar and Curlin (twice).
That list also includes Happy Saver, who was 3 last year when he won it on the heels of a victory in the ungraded Federico Tesio at Laurel Park. And he’ll take another shot at the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday, when the race is held at Saratoga for the first time.
“I think sometimes when you try to make changes on the calendar, some years it’s going to impact things differently than others,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “So you never know what’s going to happen year-to-year. In Happy Saver’s case, we didn’t feel like we were quite ready for the Whitney, so it worked out well, timing-wise, for him.
“And he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup before at a mile and a quarter. This will be a true two-turn mile and a quarter. But it’s the third race off the layoff, so hopefully he’s rounding into his best.”
Besides the JCGC, the Grade I Flower Bowl has also been moved from October at Belmont to Saturday at Saratoga for the same reason, as both races are “Win and You’re In” qualifiers for the Breeders’ Cup. The Flower Bowl will send a winner to the BC Filly & Mare Turf.
The JCGC field, in post-position order from the rail out, will include Forza Di Oro, Max Player, Chess Chief, Happy Saver, Night Ops and Forewarned.
The Woodward was moved from Belmont to Saratoga in 2006 and was run at a mile and an eighth — one full lap around the main track — until it was lengthened to a mile and a quarter last year. The Woodward will revert back to a mile and an eighth at Belmont on Oct. 2.
With the JCGC at a mile and a quarter at Saratoga, the 2021 meet offers a two-race progression of distance from nine furlongs to 10 furlongs in three divisions, 3-year-old fillies (Coaching Club American Oaks/Alabama), 3-year-old males (Jim Dandy or Curlin/Travers) and older dirt horses (Whitney/JCGC).
The JCGC has been associated with Belmont Park for so long that it’s strange to see it on the Saratoga schedule.
“It does a little bit, yeah,” Pletcher said. “I remember when they used to have a mile-and-a-quarter race here [Saratoga Cup], and it kind of makes sense to me to have a mile-and-an-eighth and a mile-and-a-quarter race here, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. But certainly I always think of the Jockey Club as being a Belmont race.”
With just six starts, Happy Saver is still lightly raced for a horse late in his 4-year-old season.
The son of Pletcher’s 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver has made a few quantum leaps, from seven furlongs in his career debut on June 20 of last year to a mile and an eighth in his next start, and from the Tesio to the Grade I JCGC.
He was undefeated until finishing third to Max Player in the Grade II Suburban at Belmont on July 3.
“He had a setback at the end of his 2-year-old year, so he was just late getting going,” Pletcher said. “He was handy to win at seven-eighths [last year], but he always impressed us that he wanted to run further.
“Last year was a strange year with the COVID, so the entire stakes calendar was sort of switched around. It was him and Mystic Guide finishing first and second [in the JCGC], so two 3-year-olds were first and second. But, yeah, last year you just had to be flexible.”
Happy Saver was wide all the way around the track in the Suburban, where mile-and-a-quarter races on the mile-and-a-half main track have a little bit of an awkward configuration.
“Second race off the layoff, and he drew [post] 6 of six [horses], and a mile and a quarter is tricky at Belmont,” Pletcher said. “Drawing outside, he was hung out the whole way. Actually, I thought he ran a very credible race for his second start back.”
The 2021 Saratoga meet came into Thursday’s card having already broken the all-time record for all-sources betting handle.
With Wednesday’s handle of $12,256,404, Saratoga’s 2021 total reached $709,437,410 with five racing days left.
That broke the record of $705,343,949 set in 2019, the first time Saratoga handled over $700 million in bets.
With no fans on-track in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saratoga all-sources handle was $702,535,468.
Travers Day alone produced $51,381,515 on Saturday, which included $9,406,526 on-track from a paid admission crowd of 44,507. The Travers Day record is $52,129,344, set in 2019.
The all-sources handle total for the 2019 meet was diminished by one racing day that was canceled because of a heat wave and another that was stopped after four races because of an intense rainstorm that battered the track. There have been no cancellations in 2021.
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