The highly-anticipated racing season at Saratoga begins Friday with an abbreviated four-day week that runs through Monday. While the day-in, day-out racing remains the best in the country, in some ways it’s a far cry from what opening week at the Spa looked like to an older generation of race goers.
Before getting into the particulars of what fans in attendance at Saratoga witnessed opening week a half-century ago, note that in 1968:
*The meet lasted just 24 days (four weeks) with racing held Monday through Saturday.
*Total attendance for the week was 84,813 (daily average of 14,069).
*Total handle for the week was $6.295 million ($45.3 million adjusted for inflation with a $7.55 million daily average). Wagering was limited to win, place, show, and a single daily double on the first two races. There was no legal off-course betting.
*Nine races were carded daily (54 in total) including one steeplechase or hurdle each day. Only seven of the 54 races that week were flat events on the turf, and no race was restricted to New York-breds.
While Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks, featuring a clash between Monomoy Girl and Midnight Bisou, is the arguable highlight of the first weekend at the Spa, only time will tell whether the remainder of the action will have as much of a long-term impact as what happened that opening week of the 1968 meet. Consider these highlights:
MONDAY, JULY 29 – Saratoga schedules four stakes for juvenile males on dirt during the meet, beginning this day with the $20,000 Flash at 5 1/2 furlongs. Second-place finisher Jay Ray would go on to win the California Derby and place in the Preakness at three. Earlier in the card, two-time steeplechase champion Bon Nouvel wins a 2 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer.
TUESDAY, JULY 30 – Queen’s Double wins a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race by three lengths for Meadow Stable, and would capture the Spinaway later in the meet as well as the Demoiselle. Sputtering to fourth as the 19-10 favorite is a first-time starter named Ta Wee, who would reach the Hall of Fame after back-to-back sprint championship titles in 1969-70.
An excellent one-mile (from a first-turn chute similar to what Ellis Park has today) allowance for fillies and mares is won by the three-year-old Gay Matelda, who would go on to land the Alabama 11 days later. She beats Sweet Folly and Quillo Queen, whose 1967 victories included the Gazelle, Ladies Handicap, Monmouth Oaks, and Coaching Club American Oaks.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 31 — The feature is the $25,000 Schuylerville for two-year-old fillies at 5 1/2 furlongs, but a one-mile conditioned allowance for three-year-olds is won by Captain’s Gig, the 1967 Futurity winner who would come back in nine days to take the Jim Dandy. Second in the allowance was 1967 Hopeful winner What a Pleasure, later the sire of Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and juvenile champion Honest Pleasure.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 1 — The $25,000 Test for three-year-old fillies over seven furlongs is won by Heartland, who would finish second to Gay Matelda in the Alabama.
A 5 1/2-furlong maiden race on the card features Shut Eye, who would later win the Fall Highweight Handicap, the future hard-knocking older horse Hydrologist, and multi-surface stakes winner and noted sire Mr. Leader.
Running second in a six-furlong allowance for fillies and mares is Sweet Tooth, the eventual dam of Hall of Famer Alydar and champion three-year-old filly Our Mims.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 2 — Back in four days is Bon Nouvel, who lands the $15,000 Beverwyck Steeplechase over 2 1/16 miles. He would win his third divisional championship at season’s end.
Finishing fourth in the featured flat race of the day, a turf allowance for fillies and mares, is Green Glade, who would bounce back later in the meet to take the Diana Handicap, run in those days on dirt.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 3 — A crowd of more than 23,000 witnesses the great Dr. Fager (who would be named Horse of the Year) toy with three rivals in the $50,000 Whitney by eight lengths at odds of 1-20. There was no place or show wagering.
Another future Hall of Famer falters against maidens when Shuvee, champion older mare in 1970-71, finishes third as the 7-5 favorite in the 5 1/2-furlong opener. She would go on to capture the Frizette and Selima that season, the New York Triple Tiara (Acorn, Mother Goose, Coaching Club American Oaks) in 1969, and back-to-back Jockey Club Gold Cups over two miles during her championship campaigns.