SARATOGA SPRINGS – To say Saratoga Race Course has a dear place in my heart would be the understatement of the century. The Spa is where the racing bug bit me over 10 years ago, and its allure continues to send me down the Thruway each year to a summer full of great racing.
This weekend marks the opening of the 146th season of racing at Saratoga, the oldest sporting venue in North America and located at the foot of the Adirondacks. The folks at the New York Racing Association (NYRA) have made more than $1.9 million in facility upgrades prior to this year’s meet.
The improvements include the addition of hundreds of high-definition televisions, three new large screen video boards, improved wireless capabilities, an enhanced sound system and an additional 100 new picnic tables for the backyard area. A grandstand season pass for the 40-day meet is $30 and a clubhouse pass is $50.
For horseplayers, Trakus, a high-tech system that enables fans and television viewers to easily track their horse’s position throughout a race, has been installed. The NYRA will present a $500,000 Guaranteed Late Pick 4 every Saturday at Saratoga Race Course and a $1 Million All Graded Stakes Pick 4 on Travers Day, Aug. 23, pending approval from the New York State Gaming Commission.
Race fans that can’t make the trek to the Capitol Region will be afforded the opportunity to watch some of the major stakes action on NBC, its sister station NBC Sports Network and Fox Sports 1. Both the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational and the Grade 1 Travers Stakes will be shown live on NBC. In addition, NBC will show the Grade 1 Test on Aug. 2 and the Grade 1 Ballerina on Aug. 23.
On Sunday during opening weekend, Fox Sports 1 will show the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks (the CCAO). On Sunday, Aug. 10, Fox Sports 1 will show the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, and one week later will broadcast the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational on Sunday, Aug. 17.
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 Diana, will be run on the turf on Saturday afternoon, with the CCAO moving from its normal spot on opening Saturday to Sunday afternoon for television.
There’s also a good chance that two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan will show up to defend his title in the Fourstardave Handicap. It was also learned this week that talented European jockey Frankie Dettori will be riding during the meet for the first time for trainer Wesley Ward. He’ll bring his famous “flying dismount” to Saratoga and has six mounts on opening day.
The News will be on hand to cover the Travers for the fourth consecutive year on Aug. 23, the premier race of the meet, nicknamed the “Midsummer Derby.” With California Chrome back home out west, the Travers should be wide open, as Belmont winner Tonalist will be looking to establish himself in the race for 3-year-old champions.
The meet will also signal the end of track announcer Tom Durkin’s storied career. Durkin will call his last race on Sunday Aug. 31, bringing a 43-year run to a close.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association.