By Jenny Kellner
When Saratoga Race Course opens Thursday (July 16) for the 152nd time, one is tempted to put the venerable track’s longstanding slogan, the “Summer Place to Be” a different way – the “Summer Place Not to Be.”
After five straight years of drawing in excess of one million fans for its 40-day meet, which will close on Labor Day (Sept. 7), the Spa is opening without any spectators in attendance, in accordance with New York State guidelines in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While this will be anything but a traditional Saratoga season, we hope to provide a semblance of normalcy for both the local community, as well as racing fans across the country,” said NYRA president and CEO David O’Rourke when permission was granted in mid-May to conduct the meet.
There may not be the traditional “Breakfast at Saratoga” crowds in the morning, lines stretching down Union Avenue waiting for the gates to open or rollicking picnickers in the backyard, but the one constant will be world-class racing, albeit with a twist.
The traditional centerpiece of the meet, the $1 million Runhappy Travers (G1), will be run on Aug. 8, a few weeks ahead of its customary position as the “Mid-Summer Derby.” But for 2020, instead of being a highlight of the sport’s second season for 3-year-olds, the 1 1/4-mile race will serve as a prep for the rescheduled Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, offering Derby-qualifying points of 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers. The $150,000 Jim Dandy (G2), the traditional local prep for the Travers, will be held instead on Sept. 5, the day of the Derby at Churchill Downs.
Tiz the Law, winner of the 1 ⅛-mile Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 20, and thus the only horse who could win this year’s Triple Crown (which concludes with the Preakness on Oct. 3) is targeting the Travers, which is expected to draw several contenders from opening day’s $100,000 Peter Pan (G3), which itself is offering Derby points (50-20-10-5). The Bill Mott-trained Modernist, winner of a division of the Risen Star (G2), headlines a field of nine for the 1 ⅛-mile race, with Candy Tycoon, second in the Fountain of Youth (G2) in February, also expected to receive considerable support from the not-inconsiderable online wagering contingent. (While far short of a record, Belmont Stakes Day handle was a healthy $67,753,336, and NYRA officials are hopeful the move to Saratoga and its brand will prove even more popular.)
Joining the Peter Pan on Thursday will be the $100,000 Schuylerville (G3) for 2-year-old fillies, with the $350,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) for sophomore fillies and the $150,000 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame (G2) for 3-year-old turf horses on July 18 and the $150,000 Lake Placid (G2) for 3-year-old fillies on the turf rounding out opening weekend’s graded stakes offerings.
Grade 1 action continues on July 25, with the $250,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap and the following Saturday (Aug. 1) with a trio of top-tier races — the $750,000 Whitney, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup, the $300,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial for 3-year-old fillies, and the $500,000 Personal Ensign for fillies and mares.
Grade 1’s on the undercard for the Travers are the $300,000 Longines Test for 3-year-old fillies and the $300,000 Ballerina, a Breeders’ Cup qualifier, for filly and mare sprinters. Other Grade 1’s sprinkled throughout the meet include the $500,000 Alabama (Aug. 15), the $400,000 Fourstardave Handicap (Aug. 22), and a pair of “Win and You’re In” races, the $500,000 Diana (Aug. 23) and the $500,000 Sword Dancer (Aug. 29). The $300,000 Forego (G1) also is Aug. 29.
New York Showcase Day, featuring races limited to horses bred in the Empire State, will be held Friday (Sept. 4), followed by closing weekend’s slate of seven graded stakes, notably the $500,000 Woodward (G1) on Saturday, the $250,000 Spinaway (G1) for juvenile fillies on Sunday, and the $250,000 Hopeful (G1) for 2-year-olds on Monday.
In all there will be 71 stakes worth $14.45 million, encompassing 39 graded stakes and 18 Grade 1’s for the 40-day meet. Following the four-day opening weekend, live racing will be conducted five days a week, Wednesdays through Sundays. Saratoga Live will present daily television coverage of the 40-day summer meet on FOX Sports and MSG Networks.
“I am hoping it will still feel like Saratoga,” trainer Todd Pletcher told Tim Wilkin of the Albany Times-Union. “But it’s going to be hard having the same feel, you know? Certain meets, like Saratoga, Keeneland and Del Mar, have the enthusiastic daily crowds. It is going to be sad that we don’t have that this year, but we have to be thankful we are able to race at all.”
Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and proud owner of Toby, an 11-year-old prize-winning palomino quarter horse. Jenny was among the first female sports columnists in the United States, and has worked for the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and Newsday. Jenny also was a senior media director at the New York Racing Association, and has been an elementary school and middle-school teacher in New York, and currently in Colorado.