07/21/2011 3:45PM

Focus at Saratoga meeting is back on the track

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Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo, at Saratoga last Saturday, is expected to return in the King’s Bishop on Travers Day, Aug. 27. Last year’s champion 2-year-old male, he has not raced since finishing third in the Wood Memorial in April.

In most years recently, the Saratoga Race Course meeting has begun amid bigger questions about New York racing than who was going to win all the important races being held at the historic old track on Union Avenue between late July and Labor Day.

First, there was the question of whether the New York Racing Association or some new entity would be operating the state’s three major tracks. Then there was the issue of whether a long-awaited racino downstate at Aqueduct would ever be built to supply the operator – whoever that might be – with the funds to maintain the place and run the races. It was just a year ago that track officials were scrambling to finalize a loan agreement with the state and warning that without it there might not be a Saratoga meeting at all.

On the eve of the 2011 meeting, though, there was no such turmoil on the horizon. The NYRA franchise is locked in for more than 25 years, and the Aqueduct racino is on schedule to open by year’s end. When track officials scheduled a press conference for the morning before Opening Day, there was only one item on the agenda: publicizing price reductions for beer, popcorn, and lemonade at track concession stands during the 40 days of racing ahead.

Any year is a good one for the Saratoga meet to be more about racing and popcorn than politics and pink slips, but it’s particularly appropriate in 2011. The national racing scene has been particularly chaotic during the first half of the racing season, with a different horse winning virtually every important race on the calendar from coast to coast and leadership of almost every division in the sport up for grabs. More so than in many recent seasons, a single dominant performance in a major Saratoga event could vault a horse from obscurity to national prominence and define a clear leader for the championship races of the fall.

Racing’s glamour division, the 3-year-old males, has been particularly democratic this year, with a different colt or gelding winning each of the eight Grade 1 races so far this year. Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner, is considered the leader in the clubhouse, but he will spend the rest of the year recuperating from an injury incurred in the Belmont Stakes, and it seems likely someone will surpass him by year’s end. This shines a particularly strong light on the Travers on Aug.  27, which is already expected to draw the Preakness and Belmont winners, Shackleford and Ruler On Ice.

There’s even a far-fetched but intriguing scenario under which a fallen star from last year could rejoin the title hunt: Uncle Mo, last year’s dazzling champion 2-year-old, was knocked off the Derby trail by illness but is expected to return to racing on the Travers undercard in the King’s Bishop Stakes. He obviously would have to accomplish a lot after that this fall to contend for another Eclipse Award, but a successful return would at least raise the possibility.

The 3-year-old fillies have been just as competitive a group as the males, with each big race in the division going to a different contender, including Zazu, Lilacs and Lace, Plum Pretty, It’s Tricky, Royal Delta, and Buster’s Ready. Two races at Saratoga should make one of them the leader of the pack: the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 23 and the Alabama Stakes on Aug. 20.

By a happy coincidence, all four of these Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds will be nationally televised on NBC for the first time. Five other weekend stakes telecasts, four of them doubleheaders, will be carried on the NBC-owned Versus network: the Diana and Jim Dandy July 30, the Whitney and Test Aug. 6, the Vanderbilt and Honorable Miss Aug. 7, the Sword Dancer Aug. 13 and the Woodward and Forego Sept. 3.

The Whitney and Woodward are especially crucial races because the nation’s older main-track males have been just like the 3-year-olds in carving up the major events so far this year. Two of them, Tizway in the Metropolitan Mile and Flat Out in the Suburban, turned in highly rated runaway victories, but everyone wants to see them do it again. The Whitney and Woodward could well determine the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year title, both of which are completely up in the air. The Woodward could also attract Havre de Grace, who might try males after swapping a pair of decisions this year with Blind Luck as those two have pulled away from the competition to stage a compelling rivalry among the nation’s older fillies. There is another scenario where Havre de Grace and Blind Luck could hook up in the Personal Ensign on Aug. 28.

There’s plenty to look forward to and plenty to talk about – and for once it’s not going to be about the machinations 30 miles south in the state capital of Albany, but about what happens on the racetrack in Saratoga.