The 2019 meet at the historic Saratoga Race Course features 76 stakes, worth a total of $20.8 million in purse money. Opening Day is July 11: The gate will open at 11 a.m. and first post is at 1 p.m. The Runhappy Travers (Travers — the “Mid-Summer Derby”) — the most anticipated race of the Saratoga meet since 1864 — is on August 24.
The Runhappy Hopeful (for two-year-olds) wraps up the season on Labor Day, September 2. For the full stakes schedule, go to www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/stakes-schedule/
The Oklahoma Training Track
Seven Months of Thoroughbred Therapy
By Marion E. Altieri
Saratoga hosts many breeds of steeds, both year-round and during the intense summers of breathtaking horse racing. Depending on the time of year and day, horse lovers can take in Thoroughbred racing; a polo match; Dressage; hunter/jumper; and harness racing — all within the city limits. And sometimes all in the space of a single weekend.
And while horse racing occurs for only 40 days a year — from mid-July through Labor Day — by the time the gate opens to fans at 11 a.m. on opening day, at least 1,000 Thoroughbreds have been chillin’ at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track for three months. Many of the champions and hopefuls stay at the track from July through November, while others “take the waters,” as they say, for the whole stretch from April through November.
Spa residencies focus often on healing of limbs or on rigorous workouts, aiming toward a first race at Saratoga. Other horses settle in for therapeutic work of spirit, mind, and nerves.
A horse may arrive at the Oklahoma tired and just plain weary, but shortly, the setting — long green barns, nestled amongst 200-year-old maple and oak trees — combined with clean, crisp mountain air works its magic.
Conspiring together, the elements of Mother Nature weave a spell that’s purely organic: fresh mineral water flowing underground for (literal) eons provides cleansing, healing nutrients to the buff, 1,200-pound bodies of equine athletes. That same water enriches the brilliantly green grass on which those same horses graze.
Horses may arrive at the Oklahoma starting on April 15. There’s no rhyme or reason, no way to predict how many horses will arrive on any given day, or month. Some descend on the city in convoys, six in each of several, enormous Sallee or BrookLedge horse trailers. Others are driven here solo by their owner, trainer, or groom. Some years, it’s a trickle: 10 horses on April 15th, a few more on each of the days that follow through mid-May. Other years, one might conclude that a cavalry is prepping for battle, for their steeds arrive en masse.
But there’s a great wisdom in arriving early, for the early bird does get the worm and the most time in this uniquely curative locus. (That is, the early horses get the unique and intimate sensation of being the first hooves to touch the sacred sand and clay. They get to be first, tickled by the fresh, bright green turf surface.)
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as (correctly) goes the adage: There are distinct advantages of being in-residence at Saratoga for an extended period of time. (Like a visiting scholar, or artist, if you will.) Champions Curlin and Rachel Alexandra — both owned by the late, great Jess Jackson and trained by Hall of Famer, Steve Asmussen — each spent months at Saratoga prior to running in — and, subsequently, winning — their respective Woodward Stakes in early September.
They both had extraordinary years prior to their Woodwards.
In 2008, Curlin had stomped the competition in the uber-prestigious Dubai World Cup in March, then the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June. Straight off that second wind, Curlin was escorted to Saratoga, where he would spend the sunny, sultry days alternately working out and just being a horse. That is, the world’s No. 1 Thoroughbred — and the world’s richest — came to Saratoga to get a good afternoon’s sleep.
Had he not rested — had he not taken time away from racing in Saratoga — Curlin may not have won the Woodward, or gone on to win his second consecutive Jockey Club Gold Cup and, for the second year in a row, be named Horse of the Year.
Jackson and Asmussen made the same decision for Rachel Alexandra the very next year: The otherworldly 3-year-old filly had shown her power, prowess, and superiority time and again during 2009. She mopped up the track with the dreams of her Kentucky Oaks competitors by 20 ¼ lengths (approx. 162”).
A mere 15 days later, she became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. She traveled to Saratoga then, to rest up for her next race, the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
Like it did with her stablemate, Curlin, Saratoga gave the warrior woman the break her body and soul needed to continue her campaign of absolute dominance. She trekked to Monmouth — won the Haskell — then retreated back to the Adirondacks, to her stall in Asmussen’s barn right next to his office.
The extra month at the Oklahoma between the Haskell and the Woodward sealed the deal: Rachel would run in the Woodward, and yes, Rachel would win. When it was time to vote for Horse of the Year, there was no contest: Rachel Alexandra had proven herself on many surfaces, against both genders, in many locations. No one could compete with her record for 2009.
There’s no doubt: the New York Racing Association does horse racing a solid by opening the Oklahoma to Thoroughbred racehorses every year in early spring. While the rest of the world is waking up, and snow may be on the ground still — horses can settle in, breathe deeply, and relax in a place where they know they are safe.
This near-sacred space is a haven for all sentient beings, a retreat for all who need the benefits of our primeval forests and ancient waters. Horses know this, and mark their calendars for April 15 in the hopes that their human caregivers themselves will long for a Saratoga retreat — and bring their horses along for the long, luscious, seven-month ride.
Marion E. Altieri has been a professional writer and editor for 30+ years, the last 16 specializing in Thoroughbred and Arabian horse racing.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Fasig-Tipton and All the Pretty (Year-Old) Horses
By Marion E. Altieri
Once a year, for two golden nights, Saratoga welcomes some of the world’s wealthiest — sheikhs, rock stars, and captains of industry. Their workaday lives may involve oil, the stage of Wembley Stadium, or Wall Street — but their cash follows their hearts onto the strong backs of Thoroughbreds, on whom their dreams race toward glory.
These wildly wealthy world citizens descend on the city for two shimmering nights of world-class, over-the-top Thoroughbred yearling auctions in the hopes of finding The Horse — the one who will take them to the Triple Crown or Dubai World Cup (e.g., American Pharoah, winner of the 2015 Triple Crown, went through the auction ring here in 2013).
Fasig-Tipton has been the tuxedoed auctioneers of exceptionally well-bred Thoroughbreds since 1898. The main office for the company is in Lexington (Kentucky) — but their showcase is right here in New York’s Adirondacks, on East Avenue one block from the main gate of the equally historic Saratoga Race Course.
The Saratoga Sale happens on August 10 and 11 this year. The Sales (as it’s referred to by those in the know) begin at precisely 7 p.m. both nights, but horse lovers (from royalty to local residents) are invited to stroll the grounds during the day, and the weekend before the Sales.
The residency at Fasig-Tipton in August is the first time that these 900-pound, year-old Thoroughbred babies have been outside the farms of their births. Bathed, clipped, and hooves polished, they are the debs of horse racing.
They’re beautiful, buff, and often are taken aback by the sights, lights, and sounds of their new surroundings. After they’re purchased, they’ll board horse trailers and be chauffeured to the farms where they’ll grow for at least another year, romping in sweeping fields before going into the care of their trainers.
By Marion E. Altieri
Who Can Go
One need not have a billion dollars in the bank in order to enjoy Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga Sale: while the seats inside the beautiful Pavilion are reserved for those whose finances have been vetted, the large, welcoming backyard has some seats and standing room for upward of 2,000 non-patricians.
What You’ll Eat
A five-star restaurant serves exceptional cuisine, while wood-burning ovens are set up in the yard, serving up bistro-style pizza. The snack bar on campus is open from very early morning hours until after 11 p.m. on Sales nights.
The fare includes delicious breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, desserts, and The Best Cheeseburgers in Saratoga. Horse lovers can have a great burger and a Coke while ogling next year’s champion Thoroughbreds and the aristocrats who will own them by the end of the night.
What it Costs
Everyone who wishes is invited to hang out and observe the beautiful evenings as they unfold. There’s no cover charge: just walk into the backyard via either East Avenue or George Street.
What You Should Wear
This isn’t a day at the beach. Don’t wear flip-flops with white socks and an offensive t-shirt. Most women opt for sundresses and strappy sandals, perhaps a Pashmina to ward off the cool Adirondack night air.
Gentlemen can wear jeans — the darker, the better — but most opt for khakis and collared shirts. (Some women go upscale, and don cocktail dresses, while their gents wear crisp suits. You may not have the money to buy a horse — but you can look like you could.)
The air is electric; the atmosphere, magical. Painted in sepia tones, as the late, great horseman, Lenny DeVito, observed, the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales could be a film from the 1940s.
Wide-eyed, you’ll mix with crazy-rich and famous horse fanatics in this elegant, quiet environment. (And you’ll swear that you saw Lauren Bacall, floating through the crowd, cheeseburger in one hand, sales program in the other.) Saratoga is The August Place to be — but nowhere in Saratoga does the spirit of Thoroughbred horse racing shine like stars more than at The Saratoga Sale at Fasig-Tipton.