SARATOGA SPRINGS — This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of racing in Saratoga. In 1863, the inaugural race meet was championed by Congressman John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, just four days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
After drawing thousands of locals and tourists for the initial meet, Morrissey enlisted several of his friends, including William Travers and Leonard Jerome, to form the Saratoga Association. The association would later construct what is now known as the Saratoga Race Course, the oldest professional sports venue in America.
In 2012, a record $150.6 million was wagered on-track at the races in Saratoga, and this year’s strong racing schedule during the 40-day racing meet could yield another record for wagering. The schedule will offer 53 listed and graded stakes worth nearly $15 million in purses. In total, there are 18 Grade 1 races over the 40-day meet that concludes on Labor Day.
Race fans who can’t make the trek to the Capital Region will be afforded the opportunity to watch Saturday action on NBC and NBC Sports Network. The “Summer at Saratoga” series will feature seven live broadcasts from Saratoga, starting on July 27, which will highlight the Jim Dandy Stakes, going through Aug. 31. The series includes a gamut of marquee races such as the Whitney, Alabama, Travers and Woodward.
The $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24 could set the stage for a rematch of the three Triple Crown race winners. The last time three different Triple Crown race winners from the same year faced off was more than 30 years ago, in the 1982 Travers, featuring Gato Del Sol (Derby), Aloma’s Ruler (Preakness) and Conquistador Cielo (Belmont).
Trainer Shug McGaughey will be seeking his fourth Travers training win with the Derby champion Orb, should the horse stay healthy for the race.
Saratoga is the summer place to be for 2-year-olds. Last year, all three Triple Crown winners – Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice – ran during the Spa’s summer meet. This summer will once again offer six juvenile stakes races in which some of the classiest 2-year-olds in the land will make their racing debuts.
Saratoga Race Course was named one of the world’s top 10 sporting venues of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated and is the nation’s premier thoroughbred racing meeting place with nearly 1 million visitors in 2012.
Today’s opening day feature is the $150,000 Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, and the meet’s first Grade 1, the TVG Coaching Club American Oaks (CCAO), will be run on Saturday afternoon. The CCAO will showcase some of the top fillies in the nation, who will be prepping for the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes to be run on Aug. 17.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be looking for his fourth consecutive training title and will have his usual strong string of 2-year-olds on display. He won an amazing 23 juvenile races in 2012 and will send two fillies postward in the Schuylerville on opening day. Pletcher’s top challenge for top trainer will be from a trainer with roots near Saratoga who has emerged on the national scene, Chad Brown, from nearby Mechanicville.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is eight wins short of Jerry Bailey’s all-time record of 693 wins since 1972. Velazquez will look to regain the leading jockey title he held in 2010 and 2011 from retired jockey Ramon Dominguez, who set a record last year with 68 victories. Velazquez will be challenged by top flight jockeys Joel Rosario and Javier Castellano, who recently topped the Belmont spring meeting with 72 wins.
There’s also a chance that 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan will show up to defend his title in the Fourstardave Handicap or possibly the Whitney Invitational Handicap, as his connections are currently weighing different options for the reigning champion. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup champion, Fort Larned, will try to become the first horse to put together back-to-back victories in the Whitney since Discovery, who won it three straight times from 1934-36.
Saratoga is fun for the whole family with a backyard that can hold up to 25,000 patrons with a general admission entry fee of a paltry $3. You can bring in food and drinks and there are plenty of televisions and betting windows throughout the grounds, in addition to a wide array of food options.
For serious horseplayers, it is the chance to make the score of a lifetime with large fields, plenty of turf racing and wacky results. The largest $2 exacta and trifecta payouts in 2012 were $18,910 and $2,152, respectively.
If you’ve never made the 4½-hour drive down the thruway to the venerable Old Spa for a day of racing, saddle up and hit the road for Saratoga’s 150-year anniversary to enjoy the finest thoroughbred racing in the land.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.