The Saratoga racing season is nothing but a distant memory, but if you thought that big time racing was over, please reconsider. The fall campaign offers something for everyone, a potpourri of sorts for the horse racing fan. In the winter and spring, it’s all about Kentucky Derby prep races as the sport tries to sort out which three year will emerge as a legitimate Triple Crown threat. The summer is the wild card, if you will. Some trainers and horses try to cement their legacies, while others use the summer season to prepare for the fall. The Travers, for the first time in many years saw a gathering of the top three year old horses with the exception of Preakness winner, Oxbow, who was out with an injury.
The fall sees it all. Two year olds, who started racing over the summer, will now take center stage with plenty of stakes races to showcase his or her ability. By the end of the fall, there will be a two year old that will be tapped as the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. An important race for two year olds is the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on October 5. History suggests that running at Belmont Park is a must for a horse that has Triple Crown aspirations. In 2004, Smarty Jones was gunned down by Birdstone at the end of the 1 1 /2 race. There were many reasons why this happened, but familiarity with the track was certainly one of them. And, for the record, Birdstone had Belmont Park experience, winning the Champagne the previous fall.
The fall also sees “the meshing,” as we will see three year olds mixing it up with their older relatives. There are still restricted races for the three year olds like next Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby, but as the Breeder’s Cup nears, it is time for the maturing three year olds to test their mettle against the “older crop.” The signature race of the year, the Breeder’s Cup, has been a tough go for three year olds over the years. Is Orb, Palace Malice or Will Take Charge good enough to beat Game on Dude and the other veterans? That will be figured out this fall.
As revered as the Saratoga season is, the best racing season is probably the Belmont Fall Meet. It doesn’t get the attention and certainly doesn’t get the crowds, but the racing is spectacular. While Saratoga is unique with its “stakes race per day,” Belmont Park stacks the deck with loaded stakes races on Saturdays and Sundays. Perhaps the greatest day of the meet is Saturday, September 28, when there is one stakes race after another. Even Belmont Stakes Day can’t compare with what is offered on the 28th.
The big event that day is the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup. Run at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles, it meshes the young and the older horses and is considered by many as a major prep race for the BC Classic, but it is more than prestigious on its own. With a $1 million purse, there will be no shortage of horses looking to win a big one at Big Sandy. With so many races, it’s difficult to speculate who is actually running, but it looks like Orb will be there and will be facing 2012 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and the ever improving Cross Traffic who showed at Saratoga that he could win a race longer than a mile. As for Travers winner Will Take Charge, some reports have him going to Belmont while others project him as a starter for the Grade II $1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx next Saturday. If he goes to Pennsylvania, he will give Moreno a rematch of their sensational stretch run dual in the Travers.
The rest of the September 28 card is scintillating with five major stakes races on tap, offering something for all. The Grade I Flower Bowl on the turf for fillies and mares; the Grade I Beldame for fillies and mares on the dirt; the Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf for three year olds and up; the Grade II Kelso for three year olds and up on the dirt and the Grade I Vosburgh for three year olds and up, a six furlong affair. Six races with $3.4 million at stake and a chance to make a statement for the Breeder’s Cup this November at Santa Anita.
The big race this weekend is tomorrow’s Grade I Woodbine Mile, a $1 million one mile turf race which will feature reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. A field of six will compete, and Wise Dan is a huge 2/5 favorite. There are three other stakes races on the Woodbine card, including the $300,000 Northern Dancer, named after one of the greatest horses and sires of all-time. All Northern Dancer did was win the 1964 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Canada’s Queen’s Plate and is considered the most influential sire of the 20th century. His Derby winning time of 2:00 was the fastest winning time until some colt named Secretariat bested it, going 1:59.40 in 1973.
The weather may be cooling, but the horse racing is just starting to heat up.