07/20/2011 3:48PM

Saratoga: Opening day gets hot season going

Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo, the champion male juvenile of 2010 but sidelined for months, is being pointed to return in the King’s Bishop on the Travers undercard Aug. 27.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Literally and figuratively, the heat is on the New York Racing Association as it prepares to open the doors Friday for the 143rd Saratoga meeting.

From a literal sense, Friday’s opening-day card is likely to be run under brutally hot conditions. The forecast calls for temperatures in the low to mid-90’s with high humidity levels making for a heat index in the low 100’s. On Aug. 2, 2006 – the second Wednesday of the meet – NYRA canceled a Saratoga card because of extreme heat. Last month, NYRA also canceled a Belmont Park card two days before the running of the Belmont Stakes because of heat.

Charles Hayward, NYRA’s president and CEO, said Wednesday that the weather service NYRA uses is calling for temperatures ranging from 88-91 degrees, but said an assessment on running the card won’t be made until Friday morning.

“Whether it’s a Wednesday in the middle of the meet or opening day, if it’s too hot, it’s too hot,” said Hayward, who added that extra hoses and plenty of ice will be available for horses following each of Friday’s 10 races. “We honestly don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Figuratively speaking, NYRA is feeling the heat from politicians who weren’t thrilled when upper management initially failed to disclose certain financial documents to the state-appointed Franchise Oversight Board. That led the state inspector general to call for a review of NYRA’s business practices. On Wednesday, state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli chimed in, saying he too wanted to examine NYRA’s financial status, specifically to see if the company implemented any changes he suggested after a 2010 audit. NYRA’s budget released last month said it will lose $11 million in 2011.

“You know Saratoga – there’s always something that pops up every day,” Hayward said. “I don’t think, frankly, we’re under any more scrutiny at this Saratoga than we have been at previous Saratogas. If the racing cards are as good as the opening-day card it will all take care of itself.”

Ah, yes, the racing. At Saratoga, NYRA races six days a week, running approximately 58 races each week. This at a time when most tracks are cutting back on race dates or number of races run because of a national horse shortage. Hayward said a shortage of New York-bred races means there likely will be more claiming races run at this meet.

“I want to have the best racing and I think we have a lot of that,” said P.J. Campo, a NYRA vice president and its director of racing. “When you run six days a week for six weeks straight, you have to fill the gaps. Whatever that may be – maiden $20,000, a $25,000-claimer – those races are wars up there. The 25 claimers, the starter 25’s, those races can be really, really strong. I think we are fortunate to have good horsemen, a great riding colony, owners who want to run their horses. . . . You see the best 2-year-olds come out of there every single year. I think that really takes the edge off trying to run six days a week.”

Stars usually come to Saratoga, but the sport is lacking star quality in its glamour 3-year-old male division. Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom is out for the year. Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont winner Ruler On Ice are running in the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth on July 31 and could run here in the $1 million Travers on Aug. 27, this meet’s showcase event.

The Travers could be upstaged by the Grade 1 King’s Bishop on that day’s undercard if Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion, is able to make that race. Uncle Mo led a strong contingent of 2-year-olds who debuted here last year. The top three finishers from a maiden race run here last Sept. 4 – Astrology, To Honor and Serve, and Anthony’s Cross – became graded stakes winners. Breeders’ Cup winners More Than Real and Winter Memories also debuted here.

Trainer Todd Pletcher won 18 2-year-old races here last year and looks to have a strong contingent again in 2011. Overdriven, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 100 in his debut win at Belmont, will run back in Sunday’s Sanford. Pletcher will be represented in the first pair of maiden races here with the 2-year-old filly Stop Shopping Maria on Friday and How Do We Win on Saturday.

Pletcher will seek his eighth Saratoga trainers' title and will face competition from Chad Brown, Linda Rice, and Bill Mott.

Pletcher’s main rider, John Velazquez, will seek to win his second straight jockeys’ title and fifth overall. Last year, he edged out Javier Castellano, 57-54. Others who could challenge include Ramon Dominguez, who has won 13 of the last 15 New York riding titles. Previous Saratoga jockey title winners – including Cornelio Velasquez, Alan Garcia and Edgar Pradop – are back. Julien Leparoux heads a Kentucky contingent that also includes Robby Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, Manoel Cruz, Jesus Castanon, and Miguel Mena.

Field size will likely determine how strong this meet will be from a business perspective. Toward that end, NYRA has instituted a purse incentive that rewards every horse who finishes sixth through last with $1,000.

There will be 52 stakes run at the meet, 17 of which are Grade 1’s, led by the Travers. The Grade 3 Schuylerville for juvenile fillies begins the graded action on Friday, and a competitive field of nine was entered, though Grade 3 Debutante winner Flashy Lassie will scratch, according to trainer Garry Simms.

Gypsy Robin, owned in part by New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, is intriguing. She won her debut at Keeneland by 7 1/2 lengths before going to Royal Ascot, where she finished seventh, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, in the Group 2 Queen Mary on turf. Trainer Wesley Ward said Gypsy Robin did not handle the soft turf at Ascot.

Though Gypsy Robin has never raced on dirt, Ward believes she is a dirt horse. Gypsy Robin is a regular workmate of Judy the Beauty, a 2-year-old filly who is 3 for 3, including a victory in the Shady Well Stakes at Woodbine last weekend.

“Her pedigree suggests she’s a dirt horse,” Ward said of Gypsy Robin. “She ran that way at Keeneland because she’s a good, quality horse. She’ll finish her career on dirt.”

Georgie’s Angel, a daughter of Bellamy Road coming off a 6 1/4-length debut victory on July 4 at Churchill, is the probable favorite for Pletcher, who has won this race three times.

Force de La Nature, Five Star Momma, True Feelings, Vukovar, and maidens True Feelings and Alydarla complete the field.