SARATOGA SPRINGS -- For horseplayers, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
On Friday afternoon, Saratoga Race Course will open the gates for its 40-day meeting through Labor Day, Sept. 3.
Located in the foothills of the Adirondacks, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) will produce racing six days a week, with Tuesdays going dark throughout the meeting.
The premier meet of the summer on the East Coast will feature 69 stakes worth a record $18.85 million.
With Triple Crown winner Justify sidelined by a soft tissue injury, the meet will be focused on other stars preparing for the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs in November.
Juveniles will be on the stage on opening weekend along with the Kentucky Oaks winner. The opening day card features the Schuylerville Stakes or 2-year-old fillies and Saturday's card includes the Sanford Stakes for 2-year-old colts. Monomoy Girl, the Oaks winner, is scheduled to run in the first Grade 1 of the meet on Sunday in the Coaching Club American Oaks.
Mind Your Biscuits, currently the fifth-ranked horse in the world, is headed to the Aug. 4 Whitney Invitational stretching out over two turns. Co-owned by University at Buffalo graduate Dan Summers, the New York-bred will look to sweep Saratoga’s two big handicap races with an eye toward the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Mendelssohn, the UAE Derby winner, is likely for the Jim Dandy on July 28 and looking to avenge his dismal Kentucky Derby performance in the slop. The Classic also could be in his future. Gronkowski, second in the Belmont Stakes behind Justify, is also pointing at the Dandy for trainer Chad Brown.
Some of the best fillies in the land will look to make a statement in the Grade 1 Alabama on Aug. 18. Wonder Gadot, the Queen’s Plate winner, is using the July 24 Prince of Wales at Fort Erie Race Track as a prep for the Alabama. The Alabama winner will have the Breeders’ Cup Distaff as a landing spot.
The Mid-Summer Derby is also a special weekend, with a gamut of graded stakes races leading up to the Travers Stakes, the meet’s marquee race on Aug. 25.
So what are some of the interesting aspects that makes Saratoga the summer place to be? Here’s a few unique things to consider while visiting the Spa.
Try a Low Roller Handicapping Contest on Sundays and Mondays. For $40, you can enter a weekly contest on Sunday and Monday afternoons, where $10 goes toward prize money and $30 becomes live bankroll that you can turn into a profit. You have to make five $2 across-the-board wagers on five different races on that day’s card.
People watch at Uncommon Grounds. Grab a cup of coffee, breakfast sandwich, racing form and Saratoga Special and corner a table outside on Broadway in front of one of Saratoga’s best coffee houses. Watching the community walk by while handicapping that day’s card while having a delicious egg sammy is part of heaven on earth.
Head to Lyrical Ballad on a dark day. If you happen to be in town on a Tuesday, stop by the Lyrical Ballad bookstore on Phila Street and see if you can find a rare, used or out-of-print book. The labyrinth-like store is full of hidden surprises and you won’t be disappointed if you wander in for an hour or three.
Visit the Buffalo-based Lobster Hut near the Carousel. Around the fifth race every time yours truly is at the Spa, a trip to the Lobster Hut for a world class lobster roll or plate of raw or steamers is in order. It’s a great place escape to clear the mind if you’re struggling at the windows. If you’re killing it, it’s not a bad place to spend the winnings from the early part of the card! Say hello to Western New York native and owner Jim for some Bills talk and he might even give out a winner or two.
Secure a spot on the rail of the Paddock Bar. One of the best spots to take pictures of the horses heading to the track from the paddock is on the rail in the bar formally known as The Post at Saratoga. Everyone knows it by the Paddock Bar, where you can get a cold beverage, watch the races on big screens above the bar and check out the horse flesh up close and personal. It’s a place where you can run into horseplayers from all over the country and swap stories and share your racing knowledge.
Check out Jockey Karaoke to benefit the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund. On Monday July 30, the Vapor night club in Saratoga will host the annual jockey karaoke with the proceeds going to the PDJF. It’s a fun night to see your favorite riders letting loose and benefiting a great cause. Past judges include former track announcer Tom Durkin and trainer Todd Pletcher, which adds to the fun.
It’s a four-and-a-half hour jaunt down the Thruway and well worth the trip to North America’s oldest major sporting venue.
We’re off at Saratoga.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.