Saratoga Springs and horse racing is a combination that evokes history and a love affair that spans decades.
On Thursday afternoon, the earliest opening of the Spa to date, the oldest sporting venue in North America will welcome some of the finest thoroughbreds in the land.
Thundering over the sacred turf that has hosted Triple Crown winners and champion thoroughbreds for more than 150 years, the horses racing during the next eight weeks will attempt to etch their names into the lore of Saratoga.
Big changes to both the racing schedule and the infrastructure of the historic race course, located in the foothills of the Adirondacks, await horseplayers and visitors.
The biggest change is the expansion of the timing of the meet, which will open eight days earlier than in the past. The meet will run through Labor Day, with five days of racing a week and Mondays joining Tuesdays as the dark days of the meet.
The premier meet’s signature event will be the 150th running of the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, a race that will have a major say in who will win the wide open 3-year-old division. With the Haskell moving up a week this year at Monmouth, the timing of the Travers could not be better for those attempting to claim the championship of the most recognizable division in racing.
With two of the three Triple Crown winners – Country House and Sir Winston – sidelined, the focus will shift to Maximum Security, who crossed the wire first in the Derby and later disqualified to 17th, and Preakness winner War of Will.
Those two likely will find challenges from Belmont Stakes runner-up Tacitus, Ohio Derby winner Owendale, Dwyer winner Code of Honor and possibly Pegasus upset winner King for a Day in what could be one of the most competitive Travers in recent years.
The biggest infrastructure change is the addition of the 1863 Club, a three-story, climate-controlled, state-of-the-art building featuring differentiated hospitality options and modern amenities. The 1863 Club is named in honor of the year of the first organized thoroughbred race meeting in Saratoga, which took place over the course of four days in August 1863 on the site of what is now the Oklahoma Training Track.
Located where the On the Rail Pavilion once stood to the right of the horse path leading to the track from the paddock, the Rail at the 1863 Club will be on the first floor and will feature table seating. This banquet space can accommodate 500 guests and provides access to a private outdoor area on the apron, offering a trackside vantage point and view of the action rounding the Clubhouse turn.
The low roller handicapping tournaments have moved to Thursdays and Sundays, now that Monday is a dark day. For $40 you can enter a contest 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.
Bettors were treated to a nice change in the wagering menu last week, when NYRA announced that the Late Pick 5 will be offered across all wagering platforms. With a takeout of 15 percent and a 50-cent minimum, this popular bet should generate some serious handle and present gamblers with some great betting opportunities for a big score.
In looking at some of the jockey and trainer trends from last year’s meeting, some handicapping nuggets appeared that could benefit bettors at the windows. While it’s obvious that Chad Brown is the king of the turf (29 percent winners, 65 percent ITM), Jorge Abreu and Rudy Rodriguez were the only two trainers to post a positive return on investment (ROI)on turf in 2018.
Jockeys Irad Ortiz Jr. and Manny Franco both had positive ROI on turf last year, with Ortiz having all-world stats in turf routes and Franco excelling in turf sprints.
On the dirt, Joel Rosario and Junior Alvarado both posted positive ROI on the main track along with Joe Bravo, who had 22% winners and 56% ITM. On the trainer side on the dirt, Kenny McPeek and John Toscano Jr. were two trainers with big ROIs and ITM percentage over 50. Two lesser known trainers to watch are Ray Handla and Robertino Diodoro, who both fired last year in 14 and 26 starts, respectively.
Once again, the popular giveaway days feature some new and unique items for the 2019 season, including a picnic cooler (July 14), a baseball cap (Aug. 7), a beach towel (Aug. 21) and zip-up hoodie (Sept. 1). The cost for a 2019 Grandstand season pass is $50 and a Clubhouse season pass is $75.
On Fridays at the Spa, Taste NY will allow guests the opportunity to sample numerous craft beers and ciders produced exclusively by New York State breweries and cideries. Live music will accompany the tasting each Friday in the Coca-Cola Saratoga Pavilion.
Opening weekend will be highlighted by an appearance by National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and legendary New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on Friday. The visit comes one week before he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. A special Winner’s Circle ceremony in recognition of the all-time MLB saves leader will take place during Friday’s card.
The opening weekend will feature six stakes races, including the $150,000 Grade 3 Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies on opening day. Saratoga's first Grade 1 race of the season, the $500,000 Diana for turf fillies and mares, will be contested on Saturday.
It’s a four-and-a-half hour drive down the Thruway and well worth the trip to a little slice of racing heaven.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.