Racing does not get much better than the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course. The finest horses, trainers and jockeys annually find their way to iconic Saratoga. My top 10 moments from this year’s meet:
1. Baffert Repeat
Fans will never forget Arrogate’s track-record performance in last year’s Travers Stakes for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. West Coast did not replicate that – what horse could? – but he was plenty impressive in allowing Baffert and jockey Mike Smith the chance to repeat in the “Mid-Summer Derby.” Both horses won on the front end, leading Smith to say that he feels like “Superman” whenever he rides for Baffert. Owners Mary and Gary West were ecstatic after West Coast, in his first Grade 1 try, topped Gunnevera by 3 ¼ lengths. “Next to the Kentucky Derby, this would have to be the second most coveted thing on our bucket list,” Gary said.
2. Gun Runner’s Double
Gun Runner moved to the head of the class among older horses when he added a 10 ¼-length Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets romp to a commanding 5 ¼-length decision in the Whitney Stakes earlier in the meet. “That was better than the Whitney,” jockey Florent Geroux said after the Woodward. “Stronger. Faster. Overall, he is just getting better.” Geroux is optimistic that Gun Runner has not peaked and can do so in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. “I don’t think he is 100 percent cranked up yet,” he said. “I really do think he has another step forward with him.”
3. Lady Eli’s Farewell
Lady Eli made her final Saratoga start a memorable one, streaking home to reel in pacesetter Dickinson by 1 ½ lengths in the Grade 2, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes. She collared Quidura by a neck in the Diana Stakes in the first Grade 1 race of the meet. Lady Eli, who returned to form after overcoming life-threatening laminitis, is to be offered as a broodmare prospect at Keeneland’s November breeding stock sale. “She really is a horse of a lifetime,” said trainer Chad Brown. “Everything she’s overcome, just her natural abilities are remarkable. She is just a rare, rare horse.”
4. Hall Call
Jockeys Javier Castellano, Victor Espinoza and the late Garrett Gomez headlined the latest class inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. Castellano owns each of the last four Eclipse Awards as the leading jockey in North America. Espinoza piloted American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 and also rode California Chrome to greatness. Gomez, who died last year, brought home 13 Breeders’ Cup winners. Gomez’s father, Louie, accepted in behalf of his late son in one of the most touching moments of the ceremony. “It was the one thing he wanted to achieve,” Louie said. “He was born to be a race-tracker.”
5. Dominguez Salute
The New York Racing Association offered a fitting tribute to former jockey Ramon Dominguez when it presented him with a ceremonial Red Jacket as part of ceremonies inducting him into the Saratoga Walk of Fame. Dominguez rattled off three successive Eclipse Awards as the leading jockey in North America from 2010-2012. He won 4,985 races and earned more than $190 million in purses before a riding accident on Jan. 18, 2013 left him with a traumatic brain injury that ended his career. “There has never been any bitterness,” said the classy Dominguez. “I am happy and thankful for all of the memories.”
6. Sweet Home Alabama
Elate, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Jose Ortiz, rebounded from a controversial head defeat to Abel Tasman in the July 23 Coaching Club American Oaks to control the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes by 5 ½ lengths. Ortiz had objected when jockey Mike Smith and Abel Tasman put Elate in tight quarters in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but stewards denied the objection. Abel Tasman skipped the Alabama. Ortiz was pleased that Elate finally reached her potential in the Alabama. “Ever since the first day I got on her in the morning, we thought she was going to be a really nice filly,” he said.
7. Blazing Afternoon
It was apparent early on Aug. 21 that the day had a chance to be special for Jose Ortiz. He rattled off three successive victories beginning with the third race, then added the seventh and brought home longshot Tusk in the ninth-race finale to complete an extraordinary five-win afternoon. “It’s special because here it’s very tough,” Ortiz said. “There are a lot of good jockeys, trainers and horses. If you get into a little bit of trouble in a race, you get beat.” He needed five flawless rides – and he produced them.
8. No Joke
Practical Joke made it 4-for-4 in one-turn races when he rallied to win the inaugural running of the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, formerly known as the King’s Bishop Stakes. Trainer Chad Brown knew he was asking a lot of his talented 3-year-old. He was grateful he had not asked too much. “To cut all the way back to seven-eighths after a tough race in the [1 1/8-mile] Haskell, I’m so proud of this horse,” he said. “It was his third race in seven weeks. He’s our iron horse.” Practical Joke is expected to train up to the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Stallwalkin' Dude swept the Tale of the Cat for the third consecutive time, willing himself past Loose on the Town by a head for jockey Joe Bravo. He marveled at the staying power of the aging warrior. “To be able to knock out a race three years in a row and here like this, he just keeps going,” Bravo said. “He’s 7 years old and you wouldn’t think he’s older than 3. He’s out there fighting a doing great.” It was the 19th victory in 56 career starts for Stallwalkin' Dude. Full confession: The author will always have a soft spot for the Tale of the Cat because he was part of the ownership group and named the horse.
10. Tight races
The race for leading jockey and the top trainer provided compelling sub-plots. Todd Pletcher avenged last summer’s loss to Chad Brown for the H. Allen Jerkens training title when he recorded 40 victories to edge Brown by one. “Those guys are tough to beat,” Pletcher said. “We exceeded expectations and I’m proud of it.” Jose Ortiz edged his older brother, Irad Jr., with 58 victories, five more than the runner-up. “To win leading rider for a second year in a row, I feel blessed,” Jose said.