by Teresa Genaro
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Opening weekend at Saratoga Race Course was an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
No one lined up outside the gates pre-dawn, waiting to get in and snag their preferred picnic table. No one watched morning workouts. No one joined track announcer John Imbriale in the kick-off toast, “They’re off at Saratoga!”
The prestigious Sanford Stakes (G3) for 2-year-olds was scrapped in a revision of the stakes schedule resulting from a nearly three-month racing shutdown because of COVID-19. A Belmont Stakes (G1) prep became a Kentucky Derby (G1) prep when the Peter Pan Stakes (G3) was run on opening day. Instead of hearing the roar of tens of thousand of people when Paris Lights and Crystal Ball fought to the wire in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), all we heard instead, were the snapping fingers and encouraging shouts from the grooms watching their charges trackside.
Welcome to Saratoga 2020, COVID-19 edition.
The New York Racing Association and Thoroughbred owners got some good news late on Wednesday, a little less than 24 hours before post time on opening day, when the state Gaming Commission announced that owners would be permitted to attend the races when they have a horse running. The numbers are limited—eight owners per horse, and the owner has to be licensed—and safety restrictions are in place, but for the first time since mid-March, owners can see their horses in person. Owners are also permitted to watch their horses train, under similarly restrictive guidelines.
Trainer Chad Brown grew up coming to Saratoga; the story of him and his family camping out at a table in the backyard is the stuff of local lore, and he got his first job working at the nearby harness track. Standing socially distanced (kind of) from reporters outside the winner’s circle after his Country Grammer won the Peter Pan, he said, “It’s really nice to win this race but definitely a bittersweet day when this beautiful place is empty.”
Like Brown, Joe Migliore grew up at the racetrack; Richard, his father, is a retired jockey, and Joe started walking hots when he was 16 years old. Now a partner association for West Point Thoroughbreds, he was on hand on Saturday when West Point’s Decorated Invader got his second straight stakes win, taking the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame (G2).
“It’s shocking at first, when you walk in and see the place so empty,” he said. “But I’m thankful to NYRA and the Gaming Commission for giving at least a few people the chance to be here.”
Decorated Invader is trained by Christophe Clément, and any other year, this stakes race would have taken place on the day of the 2020 Racing Museum Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a ceremony at which Clément would have received his green jacket and joined the racing luminaries who are honored at the institution on Union Avenue, right across the street from the track. That celebration will have to wait until next year, and so this year, the race was run on opening weekend.
Clément swept the graded stakes on the turf, closing out the weekend with a win when the fast-closing Speaktomeofsummer just got up in the Lake Placid Stakes (G2) to win by a head.
The five-day racing schedule implemented by NYRA continues this year, one of the few consistencies from years past. Following a dark Monday and Tuesday, racing will resume on Wednesday, and the week will see the first steeplechase race of the meet, the A.P. Smithwick Memorial (G1), followed on the weekend by the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Stakes (G1), the Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes (G2), and the Bernard Baruch Handicap (G2).