On Tuesday morning at around 10:15 a.m., the main track at Saratoga Race Course had closed for training, and the tractors were out to groom the surface.
Pretty much business as usual.
Except for the half-dozen jockeys, in street clothes and safety vests, hanging around the track’s first turn, ready to ride horses whose names they didn’t know over a portion of the track that didn’t exist until a few months ago.
One of the most discussed elements of Saratoga 2022 is the new(ish) Wilson Chute. It juts out at a 90-degree(ish) angle, just beyond the 1863 Club, extending northward from the main dirt surface.
Eliminated in 1972, the original Wilson Chute had been added to the race course in the early 20th century to enable one-mile races to be run on the nine-furlong main track. Without the chute, one-mile dirt races would have to start on the turn, giving those with an inside post a distinct advantage.
In the run-up to this year’s opening day of racing, some members of New York’s jockey colony had expressed safety concerns related to the Chute: about the transition from the Chute surface to the main track, about the distance from the gate to the first turn, about the proximity of inside posts to the inside rail, about how young horses might react to the unusual configuration.
To address those concerns prior to Thursday’s start of the 154th Saratoga meet, the New York Racing Association’s Glen Kozak, senior vice president, operations and capital projects, arranged a trial run from the Chute at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Six jockeys agreed to participate, and five trainers sent horses over.
Asked what horse he’d be riding, two-time leading rider at Saratoga José Ortiz laughed and said, “I have no idea.” He likened the Chute to the one at Ellis Park in Kentucky — which was, in fact, modeled after Saratoga’s original Wilson Chute — and implied that riders with experience at Ellis would find riding the mile at Saratoga fairly familiar.
Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez had been vocal about his concerns; at age 50, he characterizes himself one of the older riders in the jockeys’ room (Irad Ortiz, 29, corrected him, eliciting laughs from the other jockeys and nearby media: “Not older. Experienced”).
“I think this trial is a good idea,” Velazquez said. “There’s more room than I thought, and you can move the starting gate farther out from the rail.”
There was also a longer distance from the gate to the first turn than he’d thought.
“You’re definitely going to lose some ground heading into the turn,” Velazquez said. “But you’re going to be able to come in toward the rail gradually. You don’t have to do it right away.”
As horses trained by Rudy Rodriguez, Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, Richard Metivier, and Carlos Martin headed to the starting gate, Velazquez asked to break from post one.
“I wanted to see what it was like,” he said after the trial. “They told me he was going to be quick, so I wanted to be inside.”
He started laughing.
“He was not quick,” he said. “And he was very green.”
Velazquez said that the unraced 3-year-old named Squid Gamer hesitated when the gates opened, saw the temporary rail set up next to the gate, and went straight.
“It was a good experience,” said the rider, who will break from post 1 on Goddess Fire, a 3-year-old Todd Pletcher trainee, in the first race that will be run from the Chute, the $135,000 Wilton Stakes for New York-breds on opening day. “I thought that the first turn would come up really quickly and we’d have a problem, but my horse did the turn really well, especially for a green first-time starter. I didn’t have to rush.”
Ortiz broke from post six on McGaughey’s Citizen Mack, a 3-year-old that has raced three times.
“My horse broke very sharp,” he said. “Obviously, we’re all aware that is a trial and not a race, but we still have to be aware of the Chute and take care of each other. I didn’t feel like I was wide; I felt like I was in good position.”
Riders Javier Castellano and Irad Ortiz echoed Velazquez’s and José Ortiz’s comments, and they all agreed that the presence of spectators near the Chute isn’t a problem.
“At Saratoga,” Velazquez said, “there are crowds everywhere.”
“We’ve got crowds on the rail at six furlongs, too,” said José Ortiz, referring to races that start on the backstretch, near an area popular with picnickers and spectators.
Velazquez, José Ortiz, and Castellano all emphasized that riders should prepare to ride from the Chute just as they do for any other race.
“It could be a shocking moment the first time that you ride like this,” Velazquez said. “But like every time you go to a new racetrack, you have to do your homework. You have to watch the races, so that if you get an opportunity to ride here, you’re prepared. Do your homework and know the track conditions.”
Though the riders were pleased with how the trial turned out, they are nonetheless reserving judgment on some of the details of how one-mile races will be run. They have questions about how 2-year-old, first-time starters might react, and they’re not sure that a 10-horse field, the proposed maximum for the Chute, will be safe. Nine horses are entered in the Wilton Stakes.
“We can’t push it,” Velazquez said. “We have to be mindful of safety. So we’ll ride these races and decide after that.”