07/19/2017 2:46PM

Travers looms large as 149th Spa meet opens

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Barbara D. Livingston
Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming trains at Saratoga on July 16. The winners of all three Triple Crown races could meet in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Blessed by great weather, significant star power, and the cachet that is Saratoga, the last two summers have been the best in the 148-year history of this iconic venue.

In 2015, near-perfect weather for 40 racing days combined with the overall impact of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and his presence in the Travers helped Saratoga handle a record $656.1 million. In 2016, Saratoga handled $654.4 million, falling short of a record in large part because half of a Saturday card was wiped out by weather. The 2016 meet included two appearances by champion Songbird, and the Travers became a coming-out party for the then-unheralded Arrogate.

Friday, Saratoga’s 149th season commences for 40 days through Labor Day (Sept. 2). There is no Triple Crown winner. Arrogate, now a full-fledged star, is staying in Southern California for two appearances at Del Mar. Songbird is possible for a start at Saratoga.

But as long as Mother Nature continues to be a star, management is hopeful for another big Saratoga summer.

:: Saratoga Clocker Report: Get in-depth workout analysis for the 2017 summer meet

“If the weather cooperates again we look forward to having another good meet,” said Martin Panza, senior director of racing operations for the New York Racing Association. “Is there some anxiety? Sure. We’re going six days a week and basically running 58 [flat] races a week. Nobody else is doing that. Every track on the East Coast is sort of struggling to fill dirt races, so it’s a little bit scary.

“You got a lot of guys from Kentucky, some guys coming in from different parts of the country. It’s a meet that everyone points for. We just hope people come ready to run.”

Horsemen will be running for top purses, including 69 stakes worth a record $18.8 million. The Travers, for 3-year-olds on Aug. 26, is always the marquee event of the summer. The winners of all three Triple Crown races are on the grounds and pointing to the Travers. If all three get there, it would mark the first time since 1982 that three Triple Crown race winners met in the Travers.

Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing are expected to meet in the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy here on July 29. Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit is simply training up to the Travers.

“It’s going to go a long way in determining the divisional championship, and that’s a good thing for Travers Day,” Panza said. “We’ll try to get Songbird up here. We’ll try to get as many champions as we can that would normally run.”

Songbird, who won the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama last year, is possible for the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Aug. 26, according to her owner, Rick Porter.

The leader of this year’s 3-year-old filly crop, Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman, is already here and will run in Sunday’s Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks.

In 2016, Chad Brown set a record with 40 wins, capturing his first Saratoga trainer’s title and dethroning Todd Pletcher, who had won six straight and 12 Saratoga titles overall. Brown is coming off a Belmont spring-summer meet in which he won 40 races.

“It’d be so hard to do [again], but it won’t stop us from trying,” said Brown, who trains Cloud Computing. “Averaging a win a day … lot of things went right. In horse racing, or in any sport, it’s not always going to go that well. With that said, we are coming off a strong Belmont meet where a lot of things went right. Still, it’s going to come down to keeping the horses healthy, having some racing luck, and the weather.”

On Saturday, Brown will run the fan favorite Lady Eli and Antonoe in the Grade 1 Diana.

Pletcher, who wins more 2-year-old races annually here than any trainer, said he’d sign up for the 31 wins he had at last year’s meet.

“We had a good meet – we won 31 races,” Pletcher said. “Chad just had an exceptional meet, and it looks like he’s poised to do the same again. Hopefully, our babies run well and we continue to develop some nice horses, but I honestly don’t anticipate that we would have enough wins to get the title.”

Steve Asmussen, Linda Rice, Bill Mott, and Kiaran McLaughlin figure to win their share of races. Robertino Diodoro, who had a solid Belmont meet, is making his Saratoga debut with 26 horses.

The race for leading jockey could be interesting. Jose Ortiz won 65 races in 2016 for his first title. His brother Irad Ortiz Jr., Javier Castellano, and Joel Rosario are among those who figure to try and wrest the title away.

Last year, NYRA debuted a live 2- to 2 1/2-hour show daily on a variety of cable outlets through the country and has only expanded its presence this year. It has added a late pick-five wager to the menu, but the bet is only available to those with a NYRA Bets advance-deposit wagering account or to New York state residents. Through eight cards at Belmont, the pool averaged $74,807.

First post daily at Saratoga is 1 p.m. Eastern, with the exception of Travers Day (11:35 a.m.) and Labor Day weekend (12:30 p.m.).