SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s Kentucky Derby Week, which means there will be a huge group of horses — up to 20, if the full field remains intact — crowding, jostling and colliding with each other at 6:57 p.m. Saturday at Churchill Downs.
It was much more subdued at Saratoga Race Course on Tuesday morning, where dozens of horses galloped over the Oklahoma Training Track, but with a four-hour time window for training and a wide expanse of track to render any possibility of traffic negligible.
That won’t be the case on July 14, when the 154th Saratoga season opens.
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”76″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]While the Run for the Roses is commanding the Thoroughbred racing world’s attention, it’s not too early to look forward to the Saratoga season, as many people already are, horsemen and fans alike.
Preliminary construction has begun on one intriguing development, the Wilson Chute, a short section of dirt track angling from the outside into the clubhouse turn on the mile-and-an-eighth main track that will allow the New York Racing Association to offer one-mile dirt races that are fair.
Running a mile race on the main track under its current configuration would put the starting gate on the clubhouse turn; the chute creates a straightaway at the start.
Named to honor the contributions of the late Richard T. Wilson, president of the Saratoga Racing Association for most of the first quarter of the 20th century, the chute was dismantled in 1975 and resurrected for one season, in 1992, before being removed again.
Although the Oklahoma, which opened for training on April 16, is still quiet and sparsely populated, it’s not hard to find an opinion about what adding the Wilson Chute might do for the overall racing landscape at Saratoga.
“I thought in general it was a good idea, because a lot of times you catch horses in middle distances who can’t go a mile and an eighth and might be better suited for that one-turn mile,” trainer Jeremiah Englehart said.
“It all depends on what races they write, and then once they start using it, how those horses perform. But I don’t think anyone would have an issue with it. Saratoga is Saratoga. Seems like you could probably write a race on glass, and you’ll get people to run in it.
“I think it’ll be fantastic, because a lot of horses, unfortunately, are not going that mile and an eighth anymore,” trainer James Bond said. “And when we come off the turf [because of rain] and things like that, I think it’ll possibly help hold fields together a little bit better. Everything’s about field size. It’s better for the purse structure, better for gambling, better for everyone.”
NYRA already has three stakes races on the schedule that will cover a mile on the dirt, the Wilton on opening day, and the Evan Shipman (previously run at a mile and an eighth) and Bruce Johnstone Mile on Aug. 12.
NYRA communications director Pat McKenna said Johnstone, the long-time NYRA racing operations manager who died in 2020, had been enthusiastic about re-installing the Wilson Chute.
Saratoga ran 25 races at a mile on the dirt in 1992, but the veteran Bond said he wasn’t sad to see the chute go.
“The inside was gold and the outside was terrible,” he said with a laugh. “It was like an escalator on the inside. Basically a bias. So I think they’ve got that figured out, I hope. Everything’s trial and error.”
The main track underwent reconstruction two years ago, during which NYRA examined the possibility of re-creating the chute and took steps to lay some groundwork in the event that the project went forward at some point.
“Bruce Johnstone was driving the conversation about bringing back the Wilson Chute, but also the ability to card one-mile dirt races became increasingly attractive, so to add an option where there was demand but also bring back a historic element of the track that was present more than 100 years ago was particularly attractive,” McKenna said.
“When we did the renovations to the main track we had this in mind, so the construction to that turn itself is conducive and appropriate to adding the Wilson Chute.”
Bond and Englehart pointed to some current shift of horses to Churchill Downs as a reason to offer a more diverse menu of racing at a track like Saratoga, which has plenty of uniquely inherent appeal of its own, but, like any track, is competing for stock to keep fields full and generate wagering.
In the lead-up to the Derby, Churchill Downs has been routinely carding races with out-sized purses. Just on Tuesday, the Louisville track offered two allowance races well into the six digits and a maiden special weight with a purse of $120,000, numbers usually reserved for stakes races.
“It’ll be interesting to see how they use it [mile chute] and how it’ll fill [races],” Englehart said. “With what Kentucky’s doing now as far as their purses — and it doesn’t cost as much to train a horse there as it does in New York — you can’t fault the owners for being there.
“That’s where the money is. Hopefully, we can figure out ways to do things to be competitive. The nice thing about Saratoga is the owners want to be here, and when you have the owners and you have the bettors, you have a good product, regardless of what the pots will be.”
“And I think it’s [mile dirt races] good for the fans, something different to look at and handicap,” Bond said.
McKenna said the fans have already begun to express their enthusiasm and anticipation for the 2022 meet in the only way they can for the time being — advance ticket sales and hotel reservations.
After a pandemic year in 2020 with no fans and a 2021 season that didn’t afford them any planning certainty because the attendance capacity was in a constant state of flux for months leading up to the meet, 2022 is back to normal on that front.
“Advance ticket sales have been incredibly strong since we went on sale,” McKenna said. “This is the first year since 2019 where we’ve been able to offer tickets along the normal timeline, going out with tickets in February, March, single-day tickets go on sale tomorrow [Wednesday]. Advance hotel reservations have been particularly strong, even compared to pre-pandemic years.”