The wait for beloved Saratoga Race Course to open was a tad bit shorter this year.
With the addition of an eighth weekend, opening day arrives a week earlier than usual with July 11 serving as the first of 40 wonderful days at the Spa. Yet the idyllic conditions belie a formidable challenge for handicappers young and old.
A major obstacle when handicapping Saratoga is that it's such a favored locale for horsemen that stables from across the nation ship in for the meet, creating some mystery about how the shippers match up against New York’s top runners.
Looking back at last year’s meet, some of the trainers who shipped into Saratoga and had a good measure of success were Ron Moquett, who won with five of 27 starters, Anthony Quartarolo, who won five of 15 starts, and Chris Englehart, who operates primarily out of Finger Lakes and won five of 27 starts.
And let’s not forget two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert, who won with three of his six starters at the meet.
On the jockeys’ side, the Spa should once again be a playground for the Ortiz brothers, Jose and Irad Jr. The two of them have combined to win the last four riding titles at the Spa and figure to be the front-runners for this summer’s crown.
Hall of Famers Javier Castellano and John Velazquez figure to be in the thick of the chase as well, and when the 150th Travers rolls around, keep an eye on Castellano, who has won the Mid-Summer Derby a record six times, including last year with Catholic Boy.
A jockey to watch figures to be Jose Lezcano, who is coming off a superb Belmont Park meet in which he won the riders’ title with 44 wins at the 48-day meet. He only won 14 races at the Spa in 2018, so it will be interesting to see if he can continue to get live mounts as the scene shifts from the tall skyscrapers of the Big Apple to the Adirondack Mountains.
With the shift, it’s always wise to check out a horse’s past form at the Spa. Be it the racing surface or the mountain air, there’s something about Saratoga that brings out in the best in some horses, so horses with past victories at the Spa deserve extra attention.
Also keep in mind the differences between the ovals at Belmont Park and Saratoga.
Saratoga is a mile and an eighth in circumference as opposed to the mile and a half trip around Belmont Park. As a result, horses that race at distances such as a mile and a sixteenth and a mile and an eighth at Belmont only have to navigate one turn while at Saratoga, the mile-and-an-eighth races are contested around two turns and generally tend to produce softer fractions and are kinder to early speed.