Opening day at historic Saratoga Race Course is like Christmas Day for racing fans. For 40 fun-filled days, some of the top horses, trainers, and jockeys congregate in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for some of the best racing action all year long.
Saratoga is universally considered one of the premier racing meets in the country and the world. It’s also one of the most heavily bet. Last summer, the 40-day meet handled more than $800 million. You won’t find bigger pools on a regular basis anywhere else.
Many horseplayers make Saratoga the center of their wagering year. Here’s what you need to know about playing the races at “the Spa,” which kicks off the season on July 14 and runs through Labor Day, Sept. 5.
Saratoga’s main track is a 1 ⅛-mile dirt track, featuring two grass courses on the inside. The outer grass course, known as the “Mellon” turf course after longtime owner and Saratoga benefactor Paul Mellon, is one mile in circumference. The Mellon course plays host to the popular 5 ½-furlong turf sprints. Saratoga’s inner turf course is seven furlongs around.
The 2022 season marks the return of the one-mile chute on the clubhouse turn of the main track, known as the “Wilson chute.” The chute was part of racing at Saratoga for many years, but fell into disuse in the early 1970s, only resurfacing for one season in 1992 before being dismantled. The chute was reconstructed for this racing season, enabling Saratoga to run one-mile dirt races for the first time in decades. The chute is identical to the one at Ellis Park in Kentucky, in that the field will start directly into the turn. As such, horses with inside post positions are likely to have a significant advantage.
Betting on the Babies
Saratoga is known for its 2-year-old races. Many trainers save their best 2-year-olds for the Saratoga meet, and anyone who wins a maiden race here is often marked as a horse to watch for the future. With maiden races going for more than $100,000, virtually every promising East Coast 2-year-old will be slated for a Saratoga appearance.
Flashy first-time starters often take lots of money. Oftentimes, value can be found in horses who have raced once or twice and showed some ability in those races. They sometimes have an edge over more inexperienced rivals. Generally, they finish in the top two or three and help complete a nice exacta or trifecta.
Saratoga offers a bevy of wagering options. In addition to the standard win, place, and show fare, there’s exacta wagering on every race with at least four betting interests, as well as trifecta and superfecta wagering on races with at least six betting interests.
Saratoga also features “rolling” doubles and Pick 3s on every consecutive two and three-race sequence. The most glamorous bets at Saratoga are the Pick 4 and the Pick 5, both of which feature 50-cent minimum wagers. The early Pick 4 starts in race 2 (or race 3 if there’s a steeplechase race to begin the day), while the late Pick 4 consists of the last four races on the card. On a nine- or 10-race program, two Pick 5s are offered, with the early Pick 5 starting in the first non-steeplechase event of the day, and the late Pick 5 featured on the final five races. On 11- or 12-race cards, a middle Pick 5 is also available. Both these wagers feature gigantic pools. It’s not uncommon to see Pick 4 or Pick 5 pools exceed $1 million.
The $1 Pick 6, consisting of the last six races, is also available each race day. It’s a “traditional” pick 6, meaning that the entire pool is paid out every day to all bettors who pick all six winners.
When They Race
Saratoga races every Wednesday through Sunday. First post time most days is 1:05 p.m. ET. The exceptions are Saturday, Aug. 6, when the Whitney Stakes card begins at 12:35 p.m., Saturday Aug. 27, when the Runhappy Travers Stakes card begins at 11:35 a.m., and the final three days of the season, Sat. Sept. 3, Sun. Sept. 4, and Mon. Sept. 5, when the action begins at 12:35 p.m.
My Old Kentucky Home
Horses from all over the country like to ship in to Saratoga to take their shot at winning a race at the country’s most prestigious meet. Shippers from Kentucky tracks have far and away the most success. Through the first two weeks of last year’s Saratoga meet, horses who made their last start in Kentucky won 19 times from 90 total races, good for a 21.1% win rate. As such, horses who last raced in Kentucky have to merit respect, at least in the early stages of the season.
Major Race Days
Every race day at Saratoga is, to some degree, a major race day. However, there are several days that merit special attention.
Aug. 27 is the centerpiece day of the meet, anchored by the 153rdRunhappy Travers Stakes. Some of the country’s top 3-year-olds will square off in the 1 ¼-mile classic. The card also features five other important graded stakes races.
Many horses pointing to the Travers will race July 30 in the Jim Dandy Stakes. The Jim Dandy has served as the local Travers prep for many years, and several Jim Dandy winners have gone on to Travers success. Last year, Essential Quality pulled off the Jim Dandy-Travers double. This year’s Jim Dandy is expected to draw the second- and third-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, Epicenter and Zandon. The card also features the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap, showcasing some of the country’s top sprinters.
Aug. 6 features a pair of important Grade 1 races. The Whitney Stakes, one of the most historic races of the Saratoga season, features top older horses in a 1 ⅛-mile battle. The Whitney offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5. The Saratoga Derby Invitational is for top 3-year-old grass routers.
Four weeks later, the venerable Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was moved to Saratoga last year after spending a century at Belmont Park, presents another opportunity for top older horses on Sept. 3 and also offers a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Sept. 3 card also features two other graded stakes races.
Trainers and Jockeys to Follow
The Saratoga jockey race is annually one of the most competitive in the country. Last year, no regular rider won more than 20% of the time. Luis Saez led the standings last year with 64 wins in a breakthrough meet. The Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, also had excellent seasons, with 56 and 51 wins, respectively. Irad previously won the riding title in 2020 and 2018, while Jose took home the honors in 2019, 2017, and 2016.
On the training side, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher are likely to dominate once again. Brown’s specialty is grass horses, but he’s begun to excel with horses of all types and led the 2021 standings with 176 wins. Pletcher, who has led the trainers’ standings at Saratoga 14 times, finished second behind Brown in 2021 with 146 wins and always sends out well-meant 2-year-olds at the meet.
Where to Watch
Saratoga racing will be shown every day on the popular “Saratoga Live” program, airing on Fox Sports and on NYRA’s YouTube page. “Saratoga Live” will air primarily on FS2 and occasionally on FS1, and the Runhappy Travers Stakes on Aug. 27 will be shown nationally on FOX.