08/31/2007 12:00AM

What a difference two decades makes


The disappointing lineup for last Saturday's Travers Stakes sent me scurrying to the attic archives for my handmade chart book from the 1987 Saratoga meeting, to recall what Travers fields used to look like: The first six finishers that day were Java Gold, Cryptoclearance, Polish Navy, Gulch, Bet Twice and Alysheba, all of them Grade 1 winners. As long as I'd found the book, it seemed like a good time to see what else has changed about Saratoga racing in 20 years.

The most obvious change is the length of the meeting. In 1987, the stand ran four weeks, opening Aug. 5 and closing Aug. 31, whereas this year's six weeks began July 25 and run through Sept. 3. Also, there were exactly nine races each of the 24 days of 1987, even on Travers Day, for a grand total of 216 races. This year, with 10-race cards on weekends and a few other extras, there will be 348 races in 36 days.

The biggest change in the types of races run is the proliferation of statebred races and grass events. In 1987, only 31 of the meet's 216 races were restricted to New York-breds, or 14 percent. This year, that percentage has nearly doubled, with 60 of the meet's first 216 races having been for New York-breds.

Grass racing has expanded nearly as much. In 1987, 55 of the meet's 216 races were run on the turf, almost exactly 25 percent. This year, 93 of the first 216 races were on the grass, just over 41 percent. This includes the addition of 19 turf sprints at 5 1/2 furlongs; in 1987, there was no grass racing at less than 1 1/16 miles. There also were no conditioned (nonwinners of two or three lifetime) claiming races or maiden-claiming races, whereas this year 20 of the first 216 races fit those conditions.

A quick scan of the charts also provided a reminder that horses are simply running less frequently than they did a generation ago. On the next-to-last day of the 1987 meet, Quick Call won for the third time in 25 days, taking a conditioned allowance after having run though both his N2X and N3X conditions during opening week. On closing day, Aug. 31, Over All won the Grade 1 Spinaway for D. Wayne Lukas and Angel Cordero Jr., and no one called the Humane Society because she had also won the Schuylerville Aug. 5 and the Adirondack Aug. 20. This year not a single 2-year-old will even run in the meet's three juvenile stakes for colts or fillies, even with six rather than four weeks encompassing them.

It's hard to see anything positive in these changes. None of them was deliberately engineered, but taken together they reflect two discouraging things: an increasingly fragile breed and a changing Thoroughbred population, even at what was and still is the sport's premier venue, of more chronic nonwinners who now are in need of restricted company or conditions to thrive. It's getting harder and harder to say that racing is improving the breed.

A few other memory-lane highlights from flipping through the charts of the 1987 meet:

The nine winning trainers on opening day Aug. 5 were Jan Nerud, Sid Watters, Sue Sedlacek, Bob Wheeler, Tommy Skiffington, Scotty Schulhofer, Lukas, and Ambrose Pascucci. The last two both have won at the 2007 meet. Of the nine jockeys who found the winner's circle that day, Jose Santos's official retirement earlier this month left Richard Migliore as the only winning jockey from that day still riding.

* Very Subtle won the Test by 5 1/4 lengths Aug. 6. Three and a half months later she won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at 16-1.

* On Aug. 8, two races before Java Gold won the Whitney, Bankers Jet won the A Phenomenon Stakes. Five years later, Bankers Jet was found abandoned and near starvation and was one of the first horses rescued by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

* On Aug. 13, a Lukas first-time starter named Winning Colors won a seven-furlong maiden race by 2 1/2 lengths over Epitome. Three months later, Epitome won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 30-1. The following May, Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby. The runner-up? Forty Niner, who won the Sanford Aug. 19.

* Lukas won another seven-furlong maiden race with a 2-year-old, on Aug. 23: Dynaformer, who has gone to sire 31 graded stakes winners including Barbaro. Later that day, Groovy held off Turkoman to win the Forego.

* On Aug. 28, the Empire Stakes for statebred 2-year-olds went to a newcomer named Fourstardave - who would go on to win at least one race at Saratoga for eight consecutive seasons.