It’s opening weekend at The Spa and a big night at The Harness.
Tis the season, everybody. On Friday, July 21 the 149th season of racing will begin at Saratoga Race Course. And, for the 149th time, there will be no shortage of quality at the 40-day meet. Unlike other race courses, there is no buildup to the big races. On Saturday, the $500,000 Diana Stakes comes right up and hits you in the face. The race features Lady Eli, who made a remarkable recovery from laminitis to continue her racing career. Sunday features the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks. Other tracks, like Del Mar, will pretend to have more stakes races, but no track features more races with purses over $100,000 than the place that opened in 1864; the place they call the Saratoga Race Course.
The highlights are plentiful. The Whitney, Alabama, Jim Dandy, Woodward, the newly renamed Allen Jerkens (formerly the King’s Bishop), and of course the signature race of the meet, The Travers; a race that could feature the three winners of the Triple Crown races. If all things go well, we could see Always Dreaming (Kentucky Derby), Cloud Computing (Preakness) and Tapwrit (Belmont Stakes) go at it in the Midsummer Derby. The chance of that happening will depend on which prep races are chosen and of course, the health of the horses.
Saratoga is unique in many ways with one being a six-day racing week. While many tracks look for days to cut races, the Spa goes to the post six times and in all honesty if they could run seven times per week, they likely would. It’s a 40-day meet that ends on Labor Day and it goes fast. Don’t be one of those that think you have plenty of time to get there because before you can blink, the meet ends and the horses head back to Belmont.
You see it all at Saratoga; diehard racing fans, people who know nothing about racing, pretty girls and pretty dresses, handsome guys with handsome suits and everything else in between. There truly is something for everybody.
But, Saratoga is not a one trick pony—pun intended. Literally across the street on Nelson Avenue sits Saratoga Hotel Casino, which is home to a harness track. The “half-mile,” is in its 76th year and gets very little attention during its season and even less during the “Flat Track” meet. To that point, the Albany Times Union no longer prints entries and results, but the track, buoyed by video gaming machines fights on with a schedule that runs from February to December. When a few co-workers asked me if I was excited for the upcoming track season, I coyly replied that “the track’s been open since February.”
Saturday is perhaps the biggest racing day of the year at “Saratoga Harness,” featuring the $260,000 Joe Gerrity Memorial Pace. The race features eight pacers, all accomplished and all taking aim at the $130,000 first place prize. Last year, 2015 Horse of the Year Wiggleit Jiggle It won it and this year, the favorite is likely to be Sintra, but he will be joined by Yonkers star Somewhere in LA, Boston Red Rocks, Mach It So, the Levy winner Keystone Velocity, Molson Pace winner Bit of a Legend N, as well as All Bets Off and Clear Vision. All eight have great resumes and this should not only be a good race, but a good betting race as well.
The card also features four divisions of the New York Sires Stakes, four divisions of the New York Excelsior series, and two $25,000 Open Handicaps. The Open Pace features Dr. J Hanover. All he did was pace the fastest mile ever on Canadian soil when he stopped the clock in 1:46.4 at Mohawk in June. He will face stiff competition from Western Fame (1:51.0) and Luck Be Withyou (1:49.3).
The Open Trot is just as solid with Red Hot Herbie, Cash Me Out and Gural Hanover leading the way. In all, 14 races, all solid and all important as Harness racing inches closer to its biggest day, the Hambletonian on Saturday, August 5.
Is Saturday a day to do the double dip? How many will head to the Race Course in the afternoon and then saunter over to the Harness Track at night? There will be some, but not that many. There are very few that follow both Horse and Harness racing. As chronicled in the past, those that follow the thoroughbreds take pride in ignoring standardbreds with the feeling being mutual. For some reason, a line is drawn in the sand. If you like one, you can’t like the other. In some ways, it’s like the fan who says that they root for the Yankees and the Mets.
I can see the respective points. I am a fan of both, but it’s tough to follow both. As my interest in Harness racing has grown, I find it tough to watch both styles. The case in point are the Saturday features. In the Diana, the only horse I really have a bead on is Lady Eli. I can pretend to know the others but the truth of the matter is I haven’t seen any of the others race. On the other hand, for the Gerrity, I have seen all eight race more than once and feel that I could give an honest account from both a preview and handicap perspective. As we know, the Harness horse races more often. We’re almost seven months into 2017 and the Gerrity will be the 23rd race of the year for Somewhere in LA; the 19th for Clear Vision and the 15th for Bit of a Legend N. If you like seeing horses run then Harness racing may suit your palate. If you like seeing the sheer power, beauty, speed and grace then Thoroughbred racing will best suit your palate.
I still believe that you don’t have to choose; that you can like both. We know that this weekend Saratoga Race Course will demand and command the spotlight, but the track on Nelson Avenue offers a very strong and powerful counterpunch. If the local media was truly dedicated to covering big events then all would send crews to the Harness track for the Gerrity. That won’t happen, but that won’t take away from a very good race on a very good card of races at “Saratoga Harness.” In sum, it’s a big day—a big day for both tracks.