07/12/2013 2:23PM

Steven Crist: Belmont sets table for exciting summer at Saratoga

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Barbara D. Livingston
Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice (above) could face Kentucky Derby champion Orb and Preakness hero Oxbow in the Travers at Saratoga.

The Belmont spring/summer meeting, which ends Sunday after an 11 1/2-week run that began April 26, had its moments of very good racing but settled little in the way of establishing clear front-runners for the heart of the racing season ahead. This is not entirely a bad thing, as it set the stage for an even more competitive than usual Saratoga with leadership of every division there for the taking.

The Belmont meet included eight Grade 1 stakes (Saratoga will have 16, with nine more during the Belmont fall stand), contested over just four cards, since there were three on Memorial Day (Acorn, Phipps, Metropolitan) and three on Belmont Stakes Day (Just a Game, Manhattan, and Belmont), with the June 22 Mother Goose and July 13 Man o’ War completing the Grade 1 lineup.

One race that seems worthy of an upgrade consideration is the Grade 2 Suburban, which lost its Grade 1 status a few years ago but remains as strong as other Grade 1’s for older males around the country. It doesn’t seem quite right that the meeting’s only Grade 1 dirt race for older males is the one-mile Metropolitan. It could also be argued that there should be a Grade 1 sprint at the meet  and there is a case to be made that the $400,000 True North and $350,000 Woody Stephens, both currently Grade 2’s, deserve upgrades.

The Belmont Stakes, where Palace Malice defeated Preakness winner Oxbow and Derby winner Orb, set up the possibility of a rare showdown among three classic winners in the Travers on Aug. 24. That could make the Travers a decisive race for the 3-year-old title, barring the for-now unlikely scenario of any 3-year-old dominating his elders this fall.

The 3-year-old filly picture is at least as wide open after two lopsided Grade 1 outcomes at the spring/summer meet: Midnight Lucky trounced Close Hatches by 6 1/4 lengths in the Acorn on May 27, then Close Hatches upset 1-5 Dreaming of Julia in the Mother Goose on June 22. All three of those fillies finished behind Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks, however, and doubts remain about Midnight Lucky at more than a mile. This crew will continue to sort itself out at Saratoga in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 and the Alabama on Aug. 17.

The nation’s older dirt males are a deep group this year, led by Game On Dude in California and Fort Larned in Kentucky, with Belmont spring/summer meet performers Sahara Sky (Metropolitan), Flat Out (Suburban), and Cross Traffic (Westchester and Met runner-up) in the mix. The Whitney on Aug. 3 and Woodward on Aug. 31 are next up in the division. TizMiz Sue won the meet’s lone Grade 1 for older dirt fillies in the Phipps on May 27, but this division remains wide open, with reigning champion Royal Delta the early favorite for the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Aug. 25.

There has been very little 2-year-old racing to date, but the first graded stakes are the Schuylerville for fillies on opening day at Saratoga on July 19 and the Sanford for males two days later.

Pick five wager hamstrung by red tape

Will there be a new, low-takeout pick-five when Saratoga opens? Fans are clamoring for it, track officials want it, but the heavy hand of government bureaucracy may thwart it.

The short explanation is that the New York Racing Association has received approval to offer the bet, but for technical reasons it would have to be conducted under the pre-1996 rules for multirace bets, which did not include a provision for what happens when a race is switched from dirt to grass because of heavy rain after the wager has closed. When that happens in a pick four or pick six, the race is declared an “all,” since it would be unfair to stick bettors with selections made for the wrong surface.

Obviously, the same should apply in a pick five, but unless someone in government steps in with some scissors to get through procedural red tape, there could be a nightmarish situation – surface-switched races declared “alls” in the pick four and pick six but not in the pick five. This would create chaotic confusion among bettors and justified howls of unfairness from the betting public. It is unclear if the track would even want to offer the wager under those conditions.

There is absolutely no difference of opinion that this would be an intolerable situation and that  there has to be a way around it. We will know by next Friday whether common sense can be made to prevail on the smallest and simplest point, or whether the dysfunctional relationship between racing and government in New York has reached perhaps its lowest point ever.