One legend was lost, another was celebrated and some of North America’s finest horses staged one stirring performance after another at Saratoga Race Course. America’s Best Racing correspondent Tom Pedulla shares his top 10 memories from another summer meet to savor:
LOSS OF A LEGEND: Memories of Marylou Whitney, the beloved “Queen of Saratoga,” filled the hearts and minds of fans for the remainder of the meet after her death on July 19 at age 93. Mrs. Whitney was celebrated in numerous ways, including her induction into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 2 as a “Pillar of the Turf.” John Hendrickson, her husband who is President of the Hall of Fame, said during those ceremonies: “She was dedicated to the horses and the people who love them, the unsung heroes and backstretch workers. Thank you for loving her. She loves the sport and you with all of her heart.” David O’Rourke, chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association, said of Mrs. Whitney: “Her generosity was unparalleled and the list of her contributions is endless.”
CELEBRATING A LEGEND: Racing and baseball intersected beautifully when former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was honored at the track leading to his induction into the Hall of Fame in nearby Cooperstown, N.Y., as the first unanimous selection. The native of Panama addressed the crowd and spoke of beginning his career with modest ambitions. “The few years I wanted to play happened to be 19 years,” Rivera said. “Of those 19 years, 17 were closing. It was great joy, great moments, tough times, great times. But overall it was amazing.” The 13-time All-Star was indeed amazing, helping the Yankees to five World Series championships and finishing with 652 saves.
MASTERFUL McGAUGHEY: Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey earned his fourth Runhappy Travers Stakes victory as he did an outstanding job in preparing Code of Honor, a sophomore he described as “a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde horse.” McGaughey, 68, said he targeted the “Mid-summer Derby” as soon as his colt was elevated to second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve through the disqualification of apparent winner Maximum Security for interference. He then used the Dwyer Stakes instead of the Jim Dandy, the usual Travers prep, to give Code of Honor additional time in advance of the Travers. The result was an emphatic three-length triumph over Tacitus for McGaughey’s first Travers since 1998. “It doesn’t get old, but it can’t take that long again,” McGaughey quipped.
EMOTIONAL TRIUMPH: The 92nd running of the Whitney Stakes was emotional on many levels. It was a time to celebrate the life and wonderful work of Mrs. Whitney while the winner, McKinzie, evoked memories of Brad McKinzie, his namesake and a long-time executive at Los Alamitos Race Course for co-owner Mike Pegram and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. “Big Brad was a one-of-a-kind person and this horse is a one-of-a-kind horse,” Pegram said. “When Bobby called me and told me we had a good one, I said, ‘There’s only one name we can give him.’ ” McKinzie, under a confident ride from Mike Smith, bested Yoshida by 1 ¾ lengths.
RECORD-SETTING PERFORMANCE I: Got Stormy produced a performance that was remarkable on many levels when she became the first filly to defeat males in the 35-year history of the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap. She not only set a track record of 1:32 on the firm inner turf course but she did it a mere seven days after an authoritative score in the Fasig-Tipton De La Rose Stakes for owners Gary Barber and Southern Equine Stable. “I was fortunate to train another filly a few years ago in Tepin, who won the Breeders’ Cup (Mile in 2015) and then was second,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I told Gary early in the year that she was our next Tepin. It’s nice sometimes when you’re right. She’s amazing.”
RECORD-SETTING PERFORMANCE II: Trainer Luis Carvajal, Jr. thought Imperial Hint might be a bit short for the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap due to a stretch of poor weather that affected his preparation at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park, his home base. He was ecstatic to be wrong. The small horse with the huge heart not only rolled by four lengths but set a track record by tearing through six furlongs in 1:07.92. The previous mark of 1:08.04 had been shared by Spanish Riddle (1972) and Speightstown (2004). “When I looked at the times, my hairs stood up,” Carvajal said. “Last year, he gave me my first Grade 1, and this year he breaks the track record. It’s an amazing feeling, especially with family here.”
WAY TO REBOUND: Preservationist, who faded to fourth in the Whitney, rebounded from that disappointing showing to rally for a victory in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, prevailing by half a length against runner-up Bal Harbour for trainer Jimmy Jerkens and jockey Junior Alvarado. Jerkens said the Woodward might have been won before it even began. “He was a little more settled than he was in the Whitney,” he noted. “I thought he was much better in the post parade. He was able to stay with the pony. Last time, he wasted a lot of energy.”
DANDY CLAIM: A gelding claimed for $50,000 last October at Keeneland Race Course is not supposed to develop into a horse capable of winning the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, and yet that is exactly what happened for up-and-coming trainer Danny Gargan after he took that route to obtain Tax for R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable. He thought he was claiming a solid grass horse, but Tax steadily improved on dirt until he ran fourth in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and repelled regally-bred Tacitus by three-quarters of a length in the Jim Dandy. Gargan could not have been more excited. “He’s a gelding, so he will get better with age,” he said. “When a horse like this just matures and gets bigger and stronger, he can be any kind of horse.”
DOMINATION: Chad Brown, from nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., turned the race for the training title into a romp for the second consecutive year. He set the tone for that accomplishment when Sistercharlie, Rushing Fall and Homerique swept the top three positions in the Diana Stakes, the first of 18 Grade 1 races at the meet. Sistercharlie ran down Rushing Fall by 1 ¾ lengths. Homerique was another neck back in third. “It’s very special,” Brown said. “We knew going into the race we had the top three choices. But for all of them to run the way they did and finish one-two-three is remarkable.”
THREE-PEAT: Young star Jose Ortiz won his third straight Alabama Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets as Dunbar Road was shuffled back but used a wide rally on a sloppy, sealed track to get the job done by 2 ¾ lengths. Ortiz is the first jockey to win the Alabama three years in a row since Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey from 1997-99. “My goal is to go to the Hall of Fame,” said Ortiz. “To go to the Hall of Fame, I have to win these types of races.” Brown notched his first Alabama victory, leaving the Travers as unfinished business for him.