Saratoga is the summer place to be
by James Scully
Located in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, Saratoga Springs is
famous for many things, but horse racing is king. Saratoga is the oldest track
in America and the Victorian town in upstate New York triples in size every
summer for its six-week meeting.
The scenic beauty is spectacular. Mineral spring waters flow underground and
the local spas have attracted visitors to Saratoga since colonial days. A
popular area for arts and crafts, the region also features beautiful lakes and
parks as well as historic Civil War battlegrounds. There are plenty of fine
dining, shopping and nightlife options available.
Saratoga is known as the “Graveyard of Favorites,” but many observers are
quick to point out that favorites typically perform better than the national
average during the meeting. Well, forget maiden, claiming and allowance events.
When it comes to champions and top-class horses, Saratoga is the graveyard of
Start at the top in the sport. Secretariat and Man o’ War are widely
recognized as the two greatest racehorses ever (in either order), and both got
beat at the Spa. Man o’ War suffered his only career defeat in the 1919 Sanford.
Secretariat lost to a horse named Onion in the 1973 Whitney (G2).
Man o’ War’s setback helped change the meaning of the word upset, which came
to be used in sports terminology following the exploits of its equine namesake.
Man o’ War didn’t get off to his usual quick start in the Sanford, the only time
during his 21-race career that he rated in midpack during the early stages of a
race. He was offering a strong rally on the far turn when he ran into horses and
was forced to check at the top of the stretch, costing him any chance at the
The Whitney was supposed to be another coronation for Secretariat, but the
massive chestnut was bottled up on the rail throughout by the Allen Jerkens-trained
Onion, who didn’t own a stakes victory and wouldn’t win another, and lacked his
normal finish through the stretch to finish second.
The Saratoga mystique is undeniable.
Six of the last 11 Horses of the Year recipients to race over the track have
been defeated at Saratoga. The 1982 running of the Travers S. (G1) brought
together classic winners Gato del Sol (Derby), Aloma’s Ruler (Preakness) and
Conquistador Cielo (Belmont) in a highly anticipated Travers, but longshot
Canadian invader Runaway Groom closed from far off the pace to upset all three
The Travers is known as the “Mid-Summer Derby” and produced one of the
biggest surprises in Thoroughbred racing history when Jim Dandy shocked Triple
Crown winner Gallant Fox at 100-1 in the 1930 edition.
Distaffers haven’t been spared either. Filly Triple Crown winners Mom’s
Command and Davona Dale were both upset later in the year at the Spa.
There are plenty of highlights. The 1962 Travers is still considered one of
the most thrilling races of all-time. Belmont winner Jaipur squared off against
the classy two-year-old champion Ridan, and the pair went head and head the
entire way. Following a lengthy delay, the photo revealed that Jaipur, under
Bill Shoemaker, had gotten his nose down on the wire first.
Recent years have featured incredible finishes between You and Carson Hollow
in the Test S. (G1), Victory Gallop and Behrens in the Whitney H. (G1), and City
Zip and Yonaguska in the Hopeful S. (G1), the latter a dead-heat.
Bill Mott ruled the roost in the trainers’ standings for most of the 1990s
and earned his eighth title in 2001. However, Todd Pletcher narrowly topped Mott
by a 19-18 margin in 2002 and exploded last season, winning a record 35 races.
Pletcher shattered the previous mark of 24 wins set by Hall of Famer Sylvester
Veitch during the 24-day meet of 1954. He comes to Saratoga this year off
another successful Belmont meeting where he led all conditioners.
John Velazquez, Pletcher’s main rider, also re-wrote the history books in
2003 when capturing 61 races, breaking the 55-win plateau set by Jerry Bailey in
2001. Bailey won seven of eight titles from 1994-2001, but has been surpassed
the last two years by Edgar Prado (leading jockey in 2002) and Velazquez.
Angel Cordero Jr. owns the most riding crowns at Saratoga with 14. The
popular Cordero was the leading jockey for 11 straight years from 1976-1986.
Thirty graded stakes, including 13 Grade 1s, are carded for this year’s
36-day meet, and this marks 136th season. Saratoga represents tradition and
quality racing in a wonderful setting, and it all gets started on Wednesday.