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At Saratoga, back to basics for the big stuff
What's old is new again at Saratoga, where the 141st season once again features at least one Grade 1 race on each of the six Saturdays and 15 Grade 1's overall.
Duke of Magenta, we hardly knew you.
The revised prime-time lineup kicks off with the Grade 1 Diana, the coming-out party last year for the eventual filly-mare turf champ Forever Together, and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, the key Travers prep over the 1 1/8-mile main track, on the first Saturday, Aug. 1.
Coincidentally, Aug. 1 is also the latest deadline that New York state officials have issued for awarding rights to operate the long-stalled video lottery terminals at Aqueduct, a project that has now been through the administrations of three New York governors since it was initially approved in 2001.
"We don't even know who the head of the Senate is right now," New York Racing Association President and CEO Charles Hayward said recently, referring to the political coup in Albany that deadlocked the state Senate on the Monday after the Belmont Stakes.
Anyway, there's a Grade 1 doubleheader on the second Saturday, Aug. 8, when Commentator is targeted to try to wire the Whitney Handicap for a third time and 3-year-old fillies go a grueling seven furlongs in the Test.
Back in its traditional spot on the third Saturday, Aug. 15, in place of the Duke of Magenta, is the $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational.
You know the second half by heart: the Alabama is Aug. 22; the Travers is the highlight of five graded stakes Aug. 29; and the long and the short of it Sept. 5 are the Woodward and Forego for 3-year-olds and up.
Reflecting the global economic downturn, purses will be 5 to 7 percent lower this year, about $25 million compared with $26.9 million in 2008. Be that as it may, it's still enough money to make the mare go, evidenced by a record number of applicants for the Spa's 1,800 stalls. Horseplayers can only hope one of the mares who shows up is Zenyatta, who might be enticed to venture from California to the Spa for an epic throw-down against 3-year-old filly sensation Rachel Alexandra . . . if the price is right.
"It comes down to connections and how [they're] doing," said P.J. Campo, vice president and director of racing for the New York Racing Association. "Would we purse it [sweeten the pot]? Absolutely."
Dream matchup or no, a backstretch filled to capacity should make for full fields and plenty of them.
"The horse population will be equal or greater to last year," Hayward said. "The driving force behind Saratoga's success is the incredibly high level of racing on an everyday basis. This year . . . we're down about 10 percent in all-sources handle. We've had 70 races" - actually 75, plus another one canceled due to a severe storm - "washed off the turf."
"My best guess is that we can cut the decline in half, probably to about a 5 percent decline, by the end of the Saratoga meet," Hayward said. "A lot of it depends on both the weather and the economy."
In addition to June's washout at Belmont this spring, it should be recalled that 35 races (!) were taken off the turf during the first four weeks at Saratoga last year compared with six taken off the entire meet in 2007.
So, how does the main track play?
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, consult the July photo of the current NYRA calendar, which is a shot of Commentator coming off the far turn and hugging the rail en route to a front-running score in last year's Whitney. There is not a speck of dirt on the bright-eyed chestnut gelding, and the silks of his pilot, John Velazquez, are spotless as well. Meanwhile, he is kicking back a spray of sandy loam, and his pursuers are covered in grayish-brown earth with their eyes squinting through the debris; Grasshopper is a bit less filthy, but only because he is widest of all and sacrificing valuable ground.
To be sure, early speed is an exceptionally potent weapon on Saratoga's historic main track, whether in 1 1/8-mile routes such as the Whitney that feature a short run to the first turn or the short sprints for 2-year-olds.
In the long sprints at 6 1/2 and seven furlongs, however, horses cutting back from routes and/or coming off the turf have historically done well from off the pace, particularly when the track is drying out and more tiring than usual.
* In sprints, post positions can be a factor in specific situations but tend to even out statistically. Last year, for example, posts 1-4 won at a combined 12.2 percent; posts 9-12 won at 15.7 percent.
* Due to the laws of basic geometry, an inside draw is obviously and statistically preferred in two-turn routes, although sometimes it's possible to get a price on outside speed horses capable of clearing their fields.
* Over the past three years, post position has been largely irrelevant in the 109 Mellon turf sprints at 5 1/2 furlongs, save for the fact that the two inside posts have won at a slightly lower rate (7 percent and 6 percent), which may simply be a standard deviation from the norm. The highest win rates during that time have come from posts 11 and 12, but from only a 26-runner sample.
* In routes on either turf course, the early pace is measured, and indeed sometimes downright slow, so that outside posts, at least up to post 10, are not nearly detrimental as in dirt races: On the Mellon turf at 1 1/16 miles from 2005-08, horses from posts 1-3 were a combined 26 for 300 (8.6 percent); from posts 10-12, they were 8 for 88 (9 percent). On the inner turf at the same distance, rail horses went 14 for 99 (14.1 percent), and horses from post 10 went 8 for 56 (14.2 percent). Posts 11 and 12, however, were a combined 1 for 35.
* Main track: 1 1/8 miles; seven-furlong chute; stretch 1,144 feet; 4 percent banking on turns.
* Turf courses: Mellon (outer) course, 1 mile plus 98 feet; inner course, 7 furlongs plus 304 feet; each with 4 percent banking on turns.
* Oklahoma training track: 1 mile with a quarter-mile chute; 2 percent banking on turns.
* Oklahoma turf course: 7 furlongs; 2 percent banking on turns.
You know all the big names; the trick is getting an early line on their momentum. In 2007, Bill Mott could do no wrong, and his 27 wins nearly doubled his closest pursuers; last year, he went 4 for 72. John Kimmel won a single race the first 32 days last summer, then saddled 7 winners in a row the last four days with a $2 parlay coming back a theoretical $222,630. Kiaran McLaughlin went 10 for 27 during a stretch in the second half of August and edged Todd Pletcher, 17-15, for the meet title. Pletcher won at 20 percent on the grass, and might have won a seventh Spa crown had he not gone just 5 for 53 on the main track.
The not-so-usual suspects who made a big impression last year were Chad Brown, Charlton Baker, David Duggan, Michael Maker, and Wesley Ward.
You know the big names here, too, but there has been a gradual changing of the guard in the pecking order. Ramon Dominguez is riding full time in New York for the first time this year; he dominated the winter meet at Aqueduct as usual and was poised in mid-July to break Angel Cordero's record of 92 wins at Belmont's spring-summer meet.
Even so, with recent Spa riding titlists John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, Cornelio Velasquez, and Alan Garcia all in the jocks' room, along with such talented reinsmen as Julien Leparoux, Eibar Coa, Rajiv Maragh, Javier Castellano, and Kent Desormeaux, it's difficult to imagine Dominguez, or anyone else for that matter, running away with things.
Shaun Bridgmohan, the go-to guy for Steve Asmussen (51 starters last year), was injured in a training accident in early July and was expected to be out four to six weeks.
* First-race post time is 1 p.m. Exceptions: 2:30 p.m. on the first and last Fridays, July 31 and Sept. 4; 11:35 a.m. Travers Day, Aug. 29.
* Nine-race cards on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Exceptions: 10-race cards opening day, Wednesday, July 29; Friday, Aug. 28; and Labor Day, Sept. 7.
* Ten-race cards on Thursdays, with race 1 a steeplechase. The exception is Aug. 27, when the New York Turf Writers Cup is the featured eighth race on a nine-race program.
* Eleven-race cards on Saturdays. The exception is a 13-race card on Travers Day, highlighted by a $1 million guaranteed pick four linking the Ballston Spa, Ballerina, King's Bishop, and Travers.
* Ten-race cards all Sundays.
* Less-stringent superfecta rules were recently instituted in New York; they are now available as long as seven betting interests are carded and at least six start.
* Trifectas require six betting interests in maiden and claiming races; five in all other races.
* Simulcast wagering from England is available in the back yard Wednesday through Saturday mornings. Goodwood is the featured track opening week, first-race post approximately 9:15 a.m. Other tracks offered: Newmarket, Sandown, Newbury, Thirsk, and the high-class York meet (Aug. 18-21) featuring a trio of Group 1 races: the Juddmonte International, Darley Yorkshire Oaks, and Nunthorpe Stakes.
* At the so-called Graveyard of Favorites, the post-time choice went 117 for 359 (32.5 percent) in 2008.