07/26/2010 3:41PM

Expanded Saratoga meeting starts strong


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Aristotle, that noted handicapper of the human condition, once wrote, “One swallow does not a summer make, nor does one fine day; similarly, one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”

Nevertheless: Just four swallows into Saratoga 2010, it looks like opening up a few days early was a good idea, and it’s hard not to be optimistic about the 36 days of racing still ahead.

Any time the Saratoga meeting gets extended, there’s a legitimate concern that the quality of racing will be diluted and that everything that seems special about a short, boutique race meet will seem less so if the boutique becomes a CostCo. It is of course way too early to know if the extra two-thirds of a racing week tacked on to the start of Saratoga 2010 will induce fatigue and frayed racing by Labor Day, but there were some promising early signs that it won’t.

Saratoga can’t possibly be as consistently strong as it was in the days of just 24 nine-race cards and horses who ran twice as often as they do nowadays, but the first four days of the meet were a clear step up from the routine fare at Belmont Park earlier this summer. Despite daylong thunderstorms during Friday’s opener and infernal heat on Saturday, field size was up over Belmont and the racing was competitive enough that there were pick-six carryovers on two of the first three cards.

The main reason is the influx of Kentucky horses, which has become the key to the depth of the Saratoga meet in recent years. Del Mar, for all its magnificent surroundings and ontrack appeal, puts out a daily racing product indistinguishable from Santa Anita’s and Hollywood’s, with virtually no shippers into the same community of California-based horses. At Saratoga, the Keeneland/Churchill horses of spring and summer join the Belmont population, along with scattered fresh faces from up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

There’s not enough time between the end of the Churchill Downs meet and the start of Saratoga for the Kentuckians to stop at Belmont and race there for just two or three weeks in July. Starting Saratoga a week earlier just infuses them into ranks that much sooner.

Financially, the extra days upstate generate sharply more attendance and handle. Saturday’s card drew 20,352 people and a nationwide handle of $16.4 million as opposed to 6,476 people and $11.7 million in wagers at Belmont a year ago. Opening Sunday at the Spa drew 18,713 and total handle of $13.5 million versus 5,566 and $7.2 million for closing Sunday at Belmont in 2009. The comparisons won’t look as good going forward – Wednesday’s business this week will look awful next to what was opening day here a year ago – but when it’s all done, those four extra days here will still be big winners against the Belmont dates of 2009.

Adding a seventh weekend to the meet also may encourage some repeat business in the stakes department, providing some slightly longer gaps between races in an age where that approach is so popular. Extra time between the three graded juvenile stakes for both males and females should help those races. Moving the CCA Oaks to opening weekend worked out well for its inaugural running here as the race drew the top three finishers from the Mother Goose (though Connie and Michael was scratched), and at nine furlongs provides a more useful Alabama prep over the track than the seven-furlong Test, which is rarely used by Alabama candidates any more.

The seven-weekend structure allows for four-week breaks between the two big races in each of the major divisions while rolling them out over the first three weekends of the meet: the CCA Oaks/Alabama in weeks 1 and 5, the Jim Dandy/Travers and Ruffian/Personal Ensign in weeks 2 and 6, and the Whitney/Woodward in weeks 3 and 7.

Quality Road, the best dirt horse in the country, is pointing to the Whitney. Devil May Care’s smashing victory in the CCA Oaks set up an epic showdown with Blind Luck for leadership of the nation’s 3-year-old fillies in the Alabama. The Travers should draw all the top contenders for the title of the champion 3-year-old colt, and Rachel Alexandra may well run a day later in the Personal Ensign. There’s plenty of time for everything to go wrong, but at the moment, it feels like this was a good start to what could be a great Saratoga.