07/19/2013 3:31PM

Saratoga meet gets off to hot start

Tom Keyser
Stopchargingmaria, with John Velazquez riding, wins the meet’s first juvenile race.

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It was hot enough to make Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sweat Friday, but it wasn’t hot enough to adversely affect the opening of Saratoga’s 144th meeting in its 150th year of existence.

Temperatures were in the low 90s, with a heat index nearing 100, at post time for the first race, but with tolerable humidity and a steady breeze, the first half of the card went off without a hitch.

“There have been no heat-related problems,” Dr. Anthony Verderosa, the chief examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association said after the fourth race.

NYRA received permission from New York state officials to allow assistant starters to pour water on the horses’ heads at the starting gate before they raced.

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A meeting was held early Friday morning between NYRA management, horsemen, and jockeys, and it was quickly determined that racing would go on as scheduled. Temperatures in this area have been 90 degrees or above for six consecutive days.

“We assessed the situation this morning,” said Christopher Kay, the newly appointed president and CEO of the NYRA. “We had 250 years of experience in the room – a couple of veterinarians, horsemen, jockeys – and we made the decision to proceed. The most important thing is the vets and the trainers – who know their horses more than anyone – knew if they decided it isn’t for them today, that’s fine, they should scratch and we made it clear.”

There were only 13 scratches – not counting main-track-only entrants – on the 10-race program.

[SARATOGA 2013: Complete meet coverage, exclusive DRF videos]

Jockey John Velazquez – who won two of the first four races, including the $100,000 On the Bus Stakes aboard Hessonite – kept a plastic bag of ice under his helmet when he rode.

“On the racetrack, it doesn’t feel so bad because the wind was blowing, but as soon as you stop, the heat is overwhelming,” said Velazquez, who also won the second race aboard the 2-year-old filly Stopchargingmaria. “The breeze is helping us. If there wouldn’t have been any wind, they’d be in trouble I think.”

Velazquez won his second race on Hessonite, who rallied from last in the scratch-reduced field of six to win the On the Bus by 1 1/4 lengths over Inimitable Romanee.

David Donk, the trainer of Hessonite, had said his mare was affected by the humidity at Parx in her previous start, and had some concerns about running her Friday, but said the steady breeze helped.

“It’s hot, but the wind makes a big difference,” Donk said.

Donk was just pleased to see Hessonite – who won her ninth stakes race – get back to the winner’s circle after two disappointing losses in open company.

“It’s great to get her back on the right track,” Donk said. “I think it’s a big confidence-builder today, maybe more for me than her. She’s won nine stakes now, so we don’t have to do a lot more with her, but at the same time, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

The weather may have affected the size of the crowd – at least for post time of the opener. But as has become customary, track announcer Tom Durkin revved up the audience by having them join with him on “And they’re off at Saratoga,” as the gates opened for the opener.

In the first race, Hardest Core ($11.40) rallied from last to win under Luis Saez, who scored a victory in his first ever mount at Saratoga.

Kiaran McLaughlin, who had four Grade 1 victories among his eight wins at this meet last year, was happy to be leading trainer for at least 30 minutes.

“It’s great to get the first one out of the way, because it’s tough up here,” McLaughlin said in the winner’s circle. “We’re happy to be here early in the meet, because it can be a long meet if you don’t win one.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won 23 2-year-old races last year en route to his ninth Saratoga trainer’s title, won the first baby race of this year’s meet when Stopchargingmaria, a daughter of Tale of the Cat, rolled to a 5 1/2-length victory for owner Mike Repole.

Repole has won the last three owner’s titles at Saratoga, but Ken Ramsey – who won the title in 2008-09 – has made it his mission to win the title again this year.

“If it weren’t for Mr. Ramsey, I wouldn’t think about it as much,” Repole said. “I’d rather win the Alabama with Unlimited Budget and the Travers with Micromanage and maybe the Spinaway with Stopchargingmaria. I love winning at Saratoga. At Saratoga every race is graded.”