When D. Wayne Lukas decided to move a string of horses to Saratoga Race Course in the early 1980s, his son and assistant, Jeff, was already in New York to scout out the scene.
He called his father and told him he had a choice of stalls on the backside of the main track or a spot at the Oklahoma training track.
“I said, ‘Where’s Mack Miller, the Phippses, Woody Stephens, Allen Jerkens …?’ ” Wayne Lukas said in his office at barn 83 on Wednesday morning. “He said they’re back on the Oklahoma, and I said that’s where we’re going.”
If you’re going to jump into Saratoga, it may as well be with both feet — or all four, as the case may be.
Over 30 years later, Lukas is still in the same barn, just one of many reflections of the enduring stature, history and appeal of thoroughbred racing in Saratoga as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.
The official anniversay will be Aug. 3, but the 145th meet will begin Friday with a 1 p.m. first post.
Christopher Kay, the new New York Racing Association CEO and president, said that NYRA is prepared for 90-degree temperatures and that he doesn’t expect to cancel opening day because of the heat. NYRA canceled a Wednesday card early in the 2006 meet, but similar conditions for opening day in 2011 did not lead to a cancellation.
Racing began on what is now the Oklahoma side of Union Avenue in 1863, then moved the following year to its current location on the other side of Union to what is now the main track, grandstand and clubhouse.
The meet promises to be a 61⁄2-week celebration of the sesquicentennial, perhaps in no better way than by offering what will be some of the best racing in the world, watched by tens of thousands of fans on a regular basis. Again.
“It’s great racing, the best racing in the world for 40 days,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “You have your Royal Ascot for five days, Dubai is great for one night … but here, for a whole meet, is just a fabulous place to come, and all eyes and ears are watching Saratoga. Everybody’s trying to win a race here, and it’s a special place.”
“Not many things last like that,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who brings another battalion of top-caliber horses, including Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, who is pointing toward the Jim Dandy and Travers.
“It speaks for the quality of the racing here, the enthusiasm of the owners and trainers and jockeys that participate here. It’s just a unique setting. It’s a small community sort of away from the metropolis environment that most racetracks are in.”
“You can’t kill it up here,” Lukas said. “This atmosphere, this community, the tradition, the racing … if something’s going to flourish, it’ll flourish at Saratoga.”
The centerpiece of the meet, as it has been in 143 previous years, will be the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24.
All three of the Triple Crown race winners are targeting that race, although only one, Palace Malice is on the grounds.
Kentucky Derby winner Orb has been training at Fair Hill in Maryland and likely will train up to the Travers, and Preakness winner Oxbow, trained by Lukas, is at Churchill Downs and won’t run in a Travers prep at Saratoga.
He’ll ship to Monmouth Park for the $1 million Haskell Invitational on July 28 before heading north to barn 83.
Saratoga will miss the services of 2012 leading rider Ramon Dominguez, who was forced to retire due to a head injury suffered in a spill at Aqueduct this winter. John Velazquez, inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, needs nine wins to pass Jerry Bailey as the all-time leading rider at Saratoga, and six more after that to be the first to hit 700.
Pletcher, a former assistant to Lukas, is loaded for a run at his fourth straight Allen Jerkens Trophy as the leading trainer, especially in the 2-year-old division. He’s tied with Hall of Famer Bill Mott for most Saratoga training titles (nine).
In large part, the juveniles carried Pletcher by accounting for 23 of his 36 victories, many of them first-time starters, many of them the cream of the crop, like Hopeful winner Shanghai Bobby. He went on to win an Eclipse Award and is back training at Saratoga after an injury, although Pletcher said he won’t start at the meet.
The three-part 2-year-old graded stakes series begins this weekend, with the Schuylerville for fillies on Saturday and the Sanford for colts on Sunday.
The stakes-studded weekend also includes the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday, and, naturally, Pletcher has two of the five entered, Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar, owned by Schenectady native Ed Stanco, and Unlimited Budget, who was sixth in the Belmont.
“When you you go out on your own for the first time, it can be an intimidating place,” Pletcher said. “It’s a place where you need really, really good horses in order to win races. You look at it a little differently after awhile, but still, you still have an appreciation for how hard it is to win here and an appreciation
for the quality of racing and competition.”
The only one who made a serious run at Pletcher for the top spot last year was Mechanicville native Chad Brown, whose star continues to rise.
He had 29 winners last year to finish second to Pletcher for the second year in a row.
“When you’re scouting competition at this level, I’m playing at the top, he’s playing at the top and this other guy’s playing at the top … there’s a handful of guys, and I don’t know about them, but I’m watching them,” Brown said. “I don’t know if they’re watching me, but I’m always going to be watching what they’re doing, how they’re preparing their horses and how they’re placing them.
“Then if I need to make adjustments that I think are going to benefit my client, and primarily the horses, which in turn benefits the clients, I’m going to make those adjustments. That’s what I do.”