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Don't leave behind your Saratoga notes
ELMONT, N.Y. - Six weeks of six-days-a-week racing was a lot to digest, especially when the New York Racing Association, in its infinite wisdom, decided to close out the Saratoga meet with three straight 11-race, in-your-face programs. It was kind of like sitting at the table after Thanksgiving dinner feeling terribly bloated, only to see grandma coming at you with yet another helping of pie a la mode.
Trying to make some sense of the upstate smorgasbord, and place Saratoga running lines in some kind of meaningful context when these horses race back at Belmont, here is a brief recap of how the wet weather and other factors helped create some noteworthy dates to remember:
July 23 - The opening-day theme, and the theme for the first half of the meet, was rain, as in morning rain, and more rain during the latter portion of the card. The track was sealed for the first six races, had dried out enough to be harrowed for the seventh, and then received another soaking while harrowed for the eighth. It was sealed again for the Schuylerville and the last race, by which time it was extremely sloppy toward the inside.
July 24 - Rain at post time for the steeplechase opener. Another heavy rain before the sixth race.
July 25 - Drying out, and wet-fast early. The Bernard Baruch is run on an inner turf course officially listed yielding, but amazingly it seems closer to good judging by the lack of debris kicked up by the field.
July 26 - A strong, steady headwind on the backstretch made for faster-than-par pace-call times in sprints. Considering the wind and other fractions on the day, the striking thing about Lady Tak's stakes-record Test are the relatively slow 22.66, 45.27 opening fractions (more on this later).
July 27 - As lively as the track was the day before, that's how dull it was on the first Sunday. How dull? Sightseek's time of 1:50.92 in the Go for Wand was nearly four full seconds off the nine-furlong track record, yet she received a 115 Beyer.
July 30 - All six dirt races are won by horses either leading or second at the first call. Several horses who raced against the bias - Heather Light, Critical Cat, Ana's Lady Bird, City Sister, and Saintly Action - came back to win their next start.
Aug. 2 - Whitney Day. Track sealed for the first three races, harrowed thereafter.
Aug. 6 - An unusual figure-making day: faster than par to the pace call, but a couple ticks slow in terms of final time. This looks to have been a deceptively tiring sloppy track judging from the fact that so many outside closers made their presence felt in the lane.
Aug. 7 - Drying out and harrowed throughout the day. In sharp contrast to the previous afternoon, up-close types dominated, winning seven of eight races on the main.
Aug. 8 - One of the liveliest rails of the meet. Five of seven winners hugged the fence; the two exceptions were 6-5 shots in the three path, and one of them was disqualified for getting the staggers and drifting in late.
Aug. 10 - Sunday picnickers ran for cover when skies blackened and a deluge arrived after the second race. It rained so hard that the third race was canceled, so that repairs could be made to a patch of real estate on the far turn. Another monsoon arrived after the sixth race. Seven of nine winners raced outside.
Aug. 13 - Crystal blue skies in mid-morning gave way to rain from out of nowhere shortly before noon. More rain arrived just before the seventh race, which was run on a Mellon turf course labeled yielding, but much boggier than it had been two races earlier.
Aug. 15 and 17 - Two big days for early speed on the main track: all dirt winners led or raced up-close early.
Aug. 18 and 20 - Two big days for closers on the turf courses, as virtually every early leader faded to finish off the board.
Aug. 22 and 23 - Just when trend-watchers thought they had things figured out, the turf courses did an about-face and played much more hospitably to early speed into Travers weekend. Front-end speed was particularly strong on the main track, also.
Aug. 29 - Another big speed day: all dirt winners first or second at the first call.
Sept. 1 - A fitting getaway day. Overnight rain and morning showers forced four of seven scheduled grass races to a good, sealed main track.
The preceding recap is a good thing to clip and keep handy during the opening stages at Belmont - not that horseplayers seem to need any help, since John Q. Punter batted well over .400 in pegging the right favorites upstate.
Despite some well-publicized upsets, form also held up well in the 36 stakes races, excluding two steeplechase races and including both divisions of the Yaddo Handicap. Favorites went 14-36 (39 percent), and blindly betting each of them to win ($72) showed a flat-bet profit of $1.80. Second choices went 8-36 (22 percent), and produced a flat-bet loss of just $6.90.
Among the trio of Grade 1 stakes to kick things off at Belmont Saturday, the Gazelle offers the most compelling matchup by far.
Mineshaft looms 2-5 in the Woodward, where the main question is, "What the heck is Hold That Tiger doing in the race?"
The Man o' War is a small, unremarkable group, with none of the entrants figuring to have a say in divisional honors for top turf horse. Whitmore's Conn has overachieved, his last three wins coming at 14-1, 11-1, and 24-1, but he is a deep-closing New York-bred whose connections aren't even considering the Breeders' Cup Turf on speed-friendly Santa Anita turf. Otherwise, the main subplot is a rubber match between Denon and Macaw, who is winless from nine U.S. starts.
At least the Gazelle should be fun. Lady Tak and Island Fashion have each tried nine furlongs once, in the Kentucky Oaks, and it was a debacle for both of them. Each has run big in two subsequent starts, though. Lady Tak's slow-paced Test indicates she can rate and finish, and she has had six weeks of recovery time. Moreover, she is 4 for 5 in one-turn races. Island Fashion, meanwhile, has had just three weeks off since the Alabama, and her only one-turn race was a nose loss in a maiden race six months ago. I prefer Lady Tak.
The filly who is very hard to gauge is Spoken Fur, who finished a dull third at 4-5 in the Alabama smack dab in the middle of Bobby Frankel's 0-for-18 slump, but whose best race - by far - was her Mother Goose romp under these conditions.