Saratoga Race Course

Sneak peeks: Young trainer O’Brien, three weeks at the Spa, and what’s to come

Trainer Joseph O’Brien, right, speaks with John Velazquez after Velazquez rode Alexis Zorba in the first race on the July 22 card at Saratoga.
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Trainer Joseph O’Brien, right, speaks with John Velazquez after Velazquez rode Alexis Zorba in the first race on the July 22 card at Saratoga.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The future has arrived.

The past will be here shortly.

A promising long career as a trainer is in the making for Joseph Patrick O’Brien, the apple-cheeked 29-year-old from Ireland whose last name invokes the decades of success enjoyed by his father, Aidan.

Joseph O’Brien was an interesting presence at Saratoga Race Course on the second Friday of the meet, as he flew across the Atlantic Ocean to saddle two maidens.

We’re not expecting to see his father, the long-time head trainer for one of the most powerful racing operations in the world, this weekend, but he does have a horse in Saturday’s $1 million Saratoga Derby Invitational, Stone Age, who arrived on Sunday.

Catching our breath through 14 of 40 racing days at Saratoga, it’s worth taking a look back at what we’ve seen so far and what lies ahead – it is Whitney Week, after all.

Racing continues on Wednesday with the prospect of temperatures in the mid 90’s on Thursday and rain on Friday. And Life Is Good on Saturday.

The Whitney field will be drawn at 11 a.m. Wednesday with what’s expected to be a field of five led by Horse of the Year contender Life Is Good.

The ground already covered at this meet includes two maiden races in which the younger O’Brien saddled horses who each finished fourth. It’s perhaps a measure of the appeal of Saratoga, which is offering purses as high as $105,000 for 2-year-old maiden races, that Joseph O’Brien actually has a few horses stabled here for the first time, as opposed to last year, when he infrequently shipped from Ireland, but hit the jackpot when State of Rest won the Saratoga Derby Invitational at odds of 21-1.

“We’re hoping they can run well,” O’Brien said on July 22, after Alexis Zorba was fourth under John Velazquez. “That’s all. That’s what we’re here for. It’s a learning experience.

“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of prize money on offer, and we’re hoping to have some horses that can compete for it.”

There probably is untold pressure on O’Brien to uphold the family name. Besides dominating Europe as the head trainer for the Coolmore operation and having won every important race there, Aidan O’Brien has more than made his mark on this side of the Atlantic, having won 13 Breeders’ Cup races, including six in the BC Turf, since 2001.

If there is pressure, Joseph O’Brien doesn’t show it, neither through his demeanor nor his track record. As a jockey, he won the Breeders’ Cup Turf for his father aboard St Nicholas Abbey, then became a trainer in 2016 and won the BC Filly & Mare Turf with Iridessa in 2019, three years after changing jobs.

On July 22 at Saratoga, there was a past-performance record for a horse in the first race that you don’t see often, a third-time starter coming off a second at Naas Racecourse in County Kildare, Ireland, and a second at Dundalk Stadium, County Louth, Ireland.

Ridden by John Velazquez, the O’Brien-trained Alexis Zorba had an awkward start and no kick to the finish and was fourth. Stablemate Reckoning Force, last seen at Listowel Races, northeast of Tralee in County Kerry, endured a very similar fate the following day.

“Johnny said he [Alexis Zorba] just misbehaved in the gate a bit, and obviously he missed the gate,” O’Brien said. “It happened a bit quick for him. I think he’d like to go a little bit further over here.”

O’Brien is back in Ireland but will return for the Fasig-Tipton sales on Aug. 8-9 and perhaps again to watch his horses run.

“I don’t think you have to make a case for Saratoga, with the support this meet gets all over the world,” he said. “You see in the Derby and Oaks being grass competition, and just the amount people that come to the racing here every day. It’s a beautiful place to be, and it’s great to be here. Every place has its own intricacies, and this is a beautiful place and we love coming here. Every place has its own identity.”

A LOOK BACK

NEW CHUTER — Much was made of the new Wilson Chute, the short extension added to the main track off the clubhouse turn that would afford a fair configuration to run one-mile races on the main track.

The pre-race opinion was lukewarm-to-favorable; the post-race opinion – from jockeys who had to navigate the new terrain – leaned toward yeah-fine-whatever.

It did come in handy on two occasions when mile-and-a-sixteenth turf races were rained off and could be run at a distance on the main track comparable to what was intended, as opposed to dropping down to seven furlongs.

ATTENDANCE/HANDLE — The New York Racing Association was happy to trumpet significantly higher numbers over the first four days of racing in 2022 compared to the same stretch last year.

All-sources handle was up over 18%, as was on-track handle, probably since paid admission was up over 10%.

The numbers remained solid after the two subsequent five-days periods, bolstered by a crowd number of 37,476 and over $33 million in all-sources handle on Jim Dandy Day.

HORSE DEATHS — Since opening day on July 14, there have been no reported equine deaths from incidents that occurred during races, according to the New York State Gaming Commission’s Equine Breakdown, Death, Injury and Incident Database.

There have been two deaths from training incidents, both on the Oklahoma Training Track, since that track across the street from the main track opened for workouts in April.

Range War, an unraced colt trained by Todd Pletcher, was “injured on the Oklahoma while breezing” on June 3, according to the database, and Vindatude, a 3-year-old filly trained by George Weaver, “collapsed while jogging and died – falling and pinning the exercise rider Cindy Hutter.”

Hutter, who has been married to Weaver for 20 years, suffered a severe brain injury in the incident. Weaver told the Daily Racing Form last Thursday that his wife, who has been in a coma, has shown some small encouraging signs of responsiveness since being transferred from Albany Medical Center to a rehab facility in Boston.

In the NYSGC database’s “other” category for equine deaths, Supernova, an unraced 2-year-old colt trained by Danny Gargan, died on June 22 from “apparent peritonitis,” an often fatal inflammation of the abdominal wall.

TRAINERS/JOCKEYS — No surprise, Chad Brown (15 wins) and Todd Pletcher (12) have quickly separated themselves from the rest of the field in the trainer standings.

Irad Ortiz, Jr. currently holds the upper hand in the jockey race, with 22 wins, but who would trade places with Joel Rosario, in second? Among his 17 wins is a huge double on Saturday aboard Jackie’s Warrior in the A.G. Vanderbilt and Epicenter in the Jim Dandy, Clairiere in the Shuvee and In Italian in the Diana.

Last year’s winner, Luis Saez, is right behind Rosario with 16.

A LOOK AHEAD

TRAVERS — Speaking of Epicenter, he goes straight to the top of the Travers favorite list off that win, and with the Haskell and Jim Dandy in the books, here’s what the field for Aug. 27 is shaping up to look like:

Epicenter; Chad Brown trio of Zandon, Early Voting and Curlin winner Artorius; Kentucky Derby winner and Belmont bomb Rich Strike; Charge It, who won the Dwyer by 23 lengths; and Haskell winner Cyberknife.

Todd Pletcher hasn’t ruled out the superfilly Nest, who was a terrific second in the Belmont and crushed the CCA Oaks, but she is much more likely to just stick to her division and run in the Alabama on Aug. 20.

HALL OF FAME — The contemporary category is light this year, with just the mares Beholder and Tepin going in, and no humans, although there are several of those going in via the Pillars of the Turf and Historical Committee avenues.

Beholder never ran at Saratoga, and Tepin raced here just twice and was second both times, in the 2015 Diana and Ballston Spa.

The ceremony, which starts at 10:30 a.m. Friday, is open and free to the public at the Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion a couple blocks from the track up East Avenue.

WHITNEY — From Friday to Sunday, NYRA is handing out $4.15 million in purses over eight graded stakes, highlighted by the 95th running of the $1 million Whitney.

Life Is Good, who has been working flawlessly for this spot, isn’t just chasing the Whitney, but a possible Horse of the Year title at the end of 2022, so the stakes are much higher than just purse money and the prestige of winning one of the most important races on the North American calendar.

Looking forward to it.

Categories: At The Track, Sports

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