It was Ocean Air that finally allowed Luis Saez to breathe easy.
The 29-year-old jockey from Panama won the sixth race on the 4-year-old daughter of English Channel at Saratoga Race Course on Monday to clinch Saez’s first-ever Saratoga riding title.
The victory aboard Ocean Air gave Saez 63 winners and mathematically eliminated Irad Ortiz Jr., the only jockey who had a chance to catch Saez heading into closing day. Saez also broke a six-year stranglehold by the Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, who each had won three Spa titles over the last six years.
“Oh, man, it means everything. This is a tough spot right now, so winning this title is everything for us,” Saez said after the sixth race.
His Saratoga meet was about much more than quantity, though. He won a total of 12 stakes races, most notably the Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I Travers with Essential Quality. Those victories solidified the Belmont Stakes winner as the current top 3-year-old male in the country.
“To win the Travers, win the Belmont Stakes, NYRA is the biggest deal right now, and we’re so blessed to be here,” Saez said. “You guys can see how tough it is to win a race here, and to win 63 races is more than wonderful. I’m so happy for the horses and trainers who gave me the opportunity, and my agent Kiaran did a very good job.”
Saez later added a win on Atone in the 11th to push his meet total to 64, to 56 for Ortiz.
Besides the Jim Dandy-Travers sweep on Essential Quality, Saez won four other graded stakes.
He kicked off opening day by winning the Grade III Schuylerville on Pretty Birdie, then took the Grade III Forbidden Apple on Rinaldi the following day.
He also won the Grade II Bowling Green on Cross Border on July 31 and scored a Grade I on Whitney Day aboard Bella Sofia in the Test.
Saez’s other stakes winners were Bayerness (Shine Again), Giacosa (Yaddo), Americanrevolution (Albany), Wondrwherecraigis (Tale of the Cat), Awesome Debate (Union Avenue) and Art Collector (Alydar).
He also won the $800,000 Charles Town Classic on Art Collector on Aug. 27, riding the entire card at Saratoga that Friday, flying to West Virginia to be at Charles Town later that night, then flying right back to ride the Aug. 28 Travers card.
In typical fashion for a rider who has been getting business from a wide variety of trainers, Saez’s 12 stakes victories came from 10 different barns.
“It looked pretty impossible, but nothing is impossible,” Saez said. “We came here and tried to get it, and, well, we did it, so we’re so happy to be here.”
Saez began the final week with a seemingly comfortable 58-45 lead over Irad Ortiz with six racing days left.
Then Saez got cold, winning just two races over the next four days as Ortiz got within six heading into Sunday.
He cut his deficit to five during that card, but Saez rode two winners and came into closing day with a 62-56 lead.
When asked if he got nervous when Ortiz got within five, Saez said, “It’s been nervous all the meet, but we tried to calm down and try to be patient and ride our horses to win, and we were coming from Day 1.”
The record for most wins in a meet is 68, set by Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez in 2012.
Jose Ortiz had 65 winners in 2016.
BROWN’S FINAL TALLY
Chad Brown had already clinched his fourth Spa training title by the start of Monday’s card, so it was just a matter of putting a final number on his win total.
The Mechanicville native came in with 40 and won the eighth race with Consumer Spending to finish with 41, to 31 for Todd Pletcher in second.
“Always special, this meet. That part will never change,” he said on Saturday morning. “Then throw into it being the first meet following a fan-less meet last year where we really had a slow time of it and didn’t perform as well as we could. I think it’s important to have our twelfth man, our home crowd. I really believe that. I’m happy for them that we didn’t disappoint.”
The Saratoga meet exceeded $700 million in all-sources betting handle for the first time ever in 2019.
It took just two years to pass the $800 million mark.
The record of $705,343,949 in 2019 had already been broken as of Wednesday, with five racing days left, and the betting public pushed the 2021 final total to $815,508,063.
Average daily all-sources handle was $20,387,702, bolstered by $51,381,515 on Travers Day alone, of which $9,406,526 was bet on-track.
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 were no cancellations in 2021.
“Thanks to the energy, enthusiasm and support of the best fans in horse racing, the 2021 summer meet at Saratoga Race Course has been a tremendous success,” NYRA President and CEO Dave O’Rourke said. “This has been a summer reunion like never before, and we’re especially pleased that the return of fans has translated into strong business for downtown Saratoga Springs and the entire Capital Region community. The summer meet at Saratoga is as strong as at any point in its storied history.”
Total paid admission in 2021 was 1,046,478 for a daily average of 26,162. Not counting 2020, when fans weren’t allowed at the track because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the total paid admission has exceeded 1 million for six straight seasons.
STRONG MEET FOR DONATO
Gazette handicapper Matt Donato finished with a flourish by picking four winners on the closing day card.
That put his total at 122 for 413 races at the meet, for a winning percentage of 29.5%.
ANOTHER HOMER FOR AMERICA’S PASTIME
For the second year in a row, America’s Pastime Stables had a winner on closing day, when Frills took the fourth race.
The ownership group’s managing partner is Brian Spagnola, the general manager of the Amsterdam Mohawks of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, and Albany Dutchmen GM Jason Brinkman is America’s Pastime’s executive VP.
In 2020, they won the sixth race on closing day with Clench, and because they also went to the winner’s circle with Foxtail during closing week, they had a pretty good feeling about the end of the 2021 meet, too, Spagnola said.
“Two years in a row. It’s funny, because we won the other day, and it was the same date that Foxtail had won, so we said maybe we’ve got some karma going that we’ll win on closing day again,” he said.
America’s Pastime, in partnership with Krakow Racing, won with Dee Bo on Friday — Sept. 3, the same date on which Foxtail won last year.
“In the middle we were a little slow, but we picked up lately. We just didn’t have anything run for a couple weeks, but we’re closing with a bang, we’ve got two wins this week, so we’re excited about it.”
America’s Pastime and Krakow just claimed Frills out of a race at Saratoga on Aug. 26, got their victory on Monday and immediately lost her in a claim.
“That’s alright. We claimed her for twelve-five [$12,500], and if we lose her, we lose her for 20 [$20,000],” Spagnola said.
ANOTHER 114 BEYER
Baby Yoda’s time alone at the top of the list of top Beyer Speed Figures in North America this year didn’t last long.
Flightline, a $1 million purchase by West Point Thoroughbreds at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Selected Yearlings sale, posted a 114 after winning by 12 3/4 lengths going six furlongs at Del Mar on Saturday night, equaling the number Baby Yoda earned a few hours earlier at Saratoga.
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