SARATOGA SPRINGS – Upstate New York racing fans mark this day on the calendar every year. Friday is the 147th opening day at historic Saratoga Race Course, the oldest sporting venue in North America.
Two major dates highlight this year’s 40-day racing schedule – the Whitney Racing Festival on Aug. 8 and Travers Day on Aug. 29. The Whitney Festival will feature the $1.25 million Grade 1 Whitney and the Grade 1 Test along with three other stakes races. Travers Day has been enhanced with the Grade 1 Sword Dancer and will have seven graded stakes in total, culminating with the meet’s feature race, the $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes.
“We have made improvements to Travers Day to keep in line with the creation of our ‘must-see’ events,” said Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association. “We are developing Travers Day into a national event - a mini Breeders’ Cup - by increasing the purses for the Personal Ensign and the Forego. By including the Sword Dancer and raising the purse to $1 million we hope to create international involvement in that race.”
While it is still undecided where Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will run after the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 2, the possibility, remote as it is, that he could show up for the Mid-Summer Derby in the Spa City has not been ruled out. Trainer Bob Baffert is not a fan of the Saratoga surface and there’s a reason the venerable track is known as the Graveyard of Champions.
Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox and Secretariat both suffered losses at the historic oval situated at the foot of the Adirondacks. Baffert has mentioned this fact more than once when discussing Pharoah’s future schedule. Regardless of this year’s Triple Crown winner’s presence, the Travers is sure to attract some of the top talent from the three classics in the spring.
The Saratoga meeting runs through Labor Day and includes racing six days a week, with Tuesdays being the dark day. The $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes, the traditional prep for the Travers for 3-year-old colts, will be contested on Aug. 1. The featured filly race of the meet is the $600,000 Alabama Stakes on Aug. 22, its traditional spot one week before the Travers.
Here are a few tips for the first-time Saratoga race-tracker:
• Head to the Oklahoma training track in the morning, grab a cup of joe and watch the horses work out. It’s an experience well worth the effort.
• Attend the races on a Monday or a Wednesday when it is much less crowded and walk the backyard for a few races to take in the entertainment, the jockey walk to the paddock and a fresh, ice-cold lemonade.
• Go to the track on one of the four traditional giveaway days. This year’s giveaways are a baseball cap (July 26), a cooler bag (Aug. 3), an umbrella (Aug. 19) and a long-sleeve tee shirt (Sept. 6).
• Head to the Lobster Hut for a dozen raw or steamed clams (a Race 5 tradition for me). You may even recognize the vendor since he’s a Western New Yorker.
• Attend the National Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Aug. 7. Jockey Chris Antley, trainer King Leatherbury and horses Lava Man and Xtra Heat will enter this year.
• Western New York race fans who can’t make the journey down the Thruway to the Capitol Region this summer will be afforded the opportunity to watch some of the major stakes action on NBC, its sister station NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1.
For the fifth straight year, the NBC Sports Group will be at the Spa on several Saturdays and will present national broadcasts of its top races, including the aforementioned Whiney and Travers. The NBC Sports Group’s coverage will conclude on Sept. 5 when the NBC Sports Network broadcasts the Grade 1, $600,000 Woodward for older horses and the Grade 1, $350,000 Spinaway, a sprint race for 2-year-old fillies.
FOX Sports 1 will also be returning to the Spa for the second straight year and will be broadcasting the final two stakes races of the 2015 meet: the Grade 2, $250,000 Bernard Baruch and the Grade 1, $350,000 Hopeful on Labor Day.
• The feature on Friday’s opening day card is the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Go online to the Sports, Ink blog for a preview of that race. It includes two top fillies from the Wesley Ward and Todd Pletcher barns.
• Saturday’s card will be highlighted by the first Grade 1 race of the meet, the $600,000 Diana for fillies and mares going 9 furlongs on the turf. The race will include three Grade 1 winners including Stephanie’s Kitten, Tepin and the Canadian-bred Hard Not to Like.
• In the announcing booth, Larry Collmus takes over for the retired legend Tom Durkin and will try to follow up his Triple Crown-winning call for NYRA and NBC with a successful meet at Spa.
Summer and Saratoga– two ingredients that make for an excellent recipe.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.