The weather was great and business boomed during another wonderful summer at Saratoga Race Course. One sun-splashed afternoon after another contributed to record all-sources wagering of $878,211,963. Paid attendance surpassed one million for the seventh consecutive season, excluding 2020, when fans were unable to attend due to the pandemic.
My top 10 memories from another season of great racing at Saratoga:
SWEET REDEMPTION: Epicenter, a runner-up in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and Preakness Stakes, proved his quality beyond a doubt and moved to the head of the 3-year-old class when he and jockey Joel Rosario easily reeled in front-running Cyberknife and ruled the Runhappy Travers Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths. “It was really gratifying,” Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said. “We walked over with a tremendous amount of confidence in the horse, but definitely remember we felt exactly the same way walking over for this year’s Derby.” Epicenter was caught in the late stages of the Derby by 80.80-1 bomb Rich Strike. The Travers marked Epicenter’s first Grade 1 triumph.
LIFE IS GREAT: Life Is Good, piloted by Irad Ortiz Jr., demonstrated his superiority with an emphatic two-length victory in the Whitney Stakes to earn an automatic, fees-paid berth in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic on behalf of WinStar Farm and CHC Inc. “It felt like he was the best horse all along and he showed it,” WinStar President Elliott Walden said. “It’s real exciting. That’s what we’re here for, these kinds of dreams and these kinds of horses.” The 4-year-old Into Mischief colt registered his third Grade 1 win while pushing his earnings past the $4 million mark.
SIMPLY THE BEST: Nest proved she is the nation’s finest 3-year-old filly – and it’s not close. She swept the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama Stakes, besting her closest rival Secret Oath each time. The winning margin was a whopping 12 ¼ lengths for the Coaching Club American Oaks and 4 ¼ lengths for the Alabama. The Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets runner-up stumbled slightly at the start of the Alabama but displayed her extraordinary athleticism to go with rare endurance by recovering quickly for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. “We got into a comfortable rhythm and had something left,” trainer Todd Pletcher said of the decisive Alabama win.
RACING IMMORTALITY: Beholder and Tepin, two brilliant mares who will be remembered for their ability to beat the boys, were inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Beholder maintained her form for a remarkable amount of time for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, taking home Eclipse Awards for B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm at 2, 3, 5 and 6. She trounced males by 8 ¼ lengths in the Pacific Classic in 2015. Tepin, conditioned by Hall of Famer Mark Casse, enjoyed her most impressive moment when she defeated males in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot in 2016. Tepin also won Grade 1s against males in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile and 2016 Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
AWESOME MILESTONE: John Velazquez stretched his record for victories at Saratoga to 1,000 when he guided Precursory to her first win in the eighth race on Aug. 25. The highly-respected Velazquez, 50, boasts five riding titles at the iconic track and stands as racing’s all-time leader with more than $455 million in earnings. The only question now is how much longer he will keep going. “The day that I feel I’m not having fun and I’m not having an opportunity to ride the good horses, I can say ‘bye’ any time,” said the classy Velazquez, one of the sport’s brightest lights.
BEST OF BEST: In a star-filled jockey colony, Irad Ortiz Jr. again emerged as the best of the best when he secured his fourth Saratoga riding crown and 20th New York Racing Association title overall. Ortiz guided home 55 winners to easily outdistance Flavien Prat and Luis Saez, who totaled 40 victories apiece, for the Angel Cordero Jr. Award. Ortiz’s success included 15 stakes, five of them Grade 1s. Chad Brown, from nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., brought home the H. Allen Jerkens Award as leading trainer with Seth Klarman’s Klaravich Stables as top owner.
BACK ON TRACK: The sigh of relief heard at the end of the Grade 1 $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup was from Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott after Olympiad rebounded from a punchless fourth-place finish in the Aug. 6 Whitney Stakes to take the Gold Cup. Olympiad bested Americanrevolution by two lengths and looked much more like the powerful runner that opened the season with five consecutive wins, the last four in graded stakes. “It’s gratifying to see him come back,” Mott said. “The performance the other day was almost too bad to be true considering the form he had been in the previous five races. It was just good to see him bounce back.” The Jockey Club Gold Cup marked the 4-year-old’s first Grade 1 score and earned him a fees-paid berth in the Classic.
MEMORABLE DEBUT: Those who witnessed Echo Again’s awesome debut on Aug. 20 will be sure to remember the name. Bred and owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the Gun Runner colt broke sharply and led at every call to dominate the 6 ½-furlong mismatch by 6 ¾ lengths. He was a geared-down winner for jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. There was considerable buzz surrounding Echo Again beforehand. He lived up to it. “We thought he was good, but I’m not sure any of us were expecting the performance he put in,” said David Fiske, racing and bloodstock adviser to Ron Winchell.
SWEET MOMENT: The level of excitement in a winner’s circle does not get much higher than what everyone experienced after Jacqueline A. Davis guided 24.50-1 Vallelujah to an upset victory for her first win at Saratoga. The moment was extra special because the horse is trained by her father, former jockey Robbie Davis. “I know he won a lot of races here as a jockey. But us together? I’m beside myself I’m so happy. I didn’t know if I was going to cry, laugh, or fall off after the wire,” Davis told Horse Racing Nation. Although her father had told her to avoid the rail, his daughter relied on her observations and found that to be a fast part of the track during her unforgettable ride.
DOMINANT IN DIANA: When Chad Brown huddled with Joel Rosario before the Diana Stakes, the first Grade 1 of the meet, he predicted that In Italian “is going to run the race of her life.” He was not wrong as she set a record for the Mellon turf course by blazing a mile and an eighth in 1:45.06. She led a top-four finish for Brown in besting stablemates Technical Analysis, Bleecker Street, and Rougir. “It’s just another accomplishment for our team and a wonderful day at the races for a lot of friends and family,” said Brown, whose boyhood days at Saratoga inspired him to become a trainer.