Opening Day at the Spa is always a special occasion
by Bob Ehalt
Baseball fans have Opening Day. That one, long-awaited moment, filled with the promise and excitement of a bright future that can bring out the giddy little kid in a crusty senior citizen.
Racing fans have Opening Day at Saratoga. That July afternoon, some 45 weeks in the making, when months of anticipation and grand expectations reach a fever pitch as horses approach a starting gate, positioned in front of a packed grandstand.
As a festive crowd of more than 30,000 swells and post time draws near, the mood mirrors Times Square on New Year's Eve. As each horse enters the gate, the euphoria builds until a bell rings, the gates spring open and track announcer Larry Collmus delivers the words that are echoed in every corner of the Victorian era racetrack:
"And they're off at Saratoga!"
"When the horses approach the gate for that first race at Saratoga, you get a such burst of energy and excitement," Collmus said. "It's a special day. When you call a Triple Crown race there's nervous energy that builds up, and it happens for that first race at Saratoga, too."
Those five words, first authored by former New York Racing Association track announcer Tom Durkin, traditionally raise the curtain on 40 days of racing like no other in the country.
What starts at Saratoga Race Course on Friday for the 149th time and runs through Labor Day on September 4 is a heavenly mix of the very best racing has to offer. Famed Grade 1 stakes. Hall of Fame trainers. World-class riders. Champions and future champions. Classic winners. All of them competing at a historic racetrack that dates back to 1864 and is the envy of the industry with staggering 2016 daily averages of 28,016 in attendance and $17.4 million in total wagering.
"There's a ton of people that look forward to Saratoga, especially me," Collmus said. "There's something about the place when you walk through those gates. Everybody seems to be in a good mood. They are happy to be there and for 40 days you'll see the best racing around. Every day is an event and opening day, for sure, is one of them."
Much like fans who circle Saratoga's opening day on their calendars, trainers, owners and jockeys also relish the move to the vibrant Spa, where success is rewarded in a variety of ways and 69 stakes will offer $18.7 million in purses.
"For me and my team that first day at Saratoga is like Opening Day at a ballpark," trainer Chad Brown said. "I can feel it from my clients. There's a lot of excitement in the air when Saratoga approaches. Everyone is looking forward to it. We count down the days to it."
Brown claimed his first Saratoga training title last year, one of the highlights in a 2016 campaign that was rewarded with his initial Eclipse Award as the nation's top trainer. He notched a record 40 wins at the Spa a year ago, and gained a special satisfaction in becoming the leading trainer at a track about 16 miles away from his childhood home in Mechanicville, New York.
"I love going home," Brown said. "I love showing off the horses in front of my friends and family. I appreciate all the well-wishes, the good lucks and congratulations I get up there. It's great to see people in the winner's circle you normally wouldn't see at the races. Those seven weeks are the highlight of my year."
Brown is coming off a sensational spring/summer meet at Belmont Park in which he captured the training title with 40 victories. Yet the 38-year-old trainer knows success cannot be taken for granted at a meet as competitive as the 40 days at Saratoga.
"It was a huge accomplishment and relief to deliver that title for all our fans in the Capital Region. Everyone on the team executed their jobs perfectly and we had a lot of racing luck along the way. The weather cooperated. Everything fell into place," Brown said. "Yet I've been doing this long enough to know you can't count on that every year. It's difficult to win races at Saratoga. There's a reason why it took until our 10th year in the business to win a title there. It's the best horsemen in the country. The best owners. A lot of the best horses. It doesn't matter what level you are racing at. From the claiming races all the way up to the Grade 1's, you have to run your best race to win. There are no easy races at Saratoga. No layups."
Brown said his success at Belmont could complicate his bid for back-to-back titles at the Spa, but it's hardly an insurmountable obstacle. A year ago, he also captured the Belmont title prior to his record-breaking season at the Spa.
"We're coming off a strong Belmont meet and any time when you win that many races at a meet people wonder if you are out of conditions and live horses who will be favorites at Saratoga, but I can't manage my stable any other way. When horses are ready to run, you can't save it," he said. "I'm fortunate we have a lot of good horses in the barn and should have a solid meet at Saratoga. Whether it is enough to win again remains to be seen. There are so many variables."
Like Brown, jockey Jose Ortiz walked away with a title at the 2016 Saratoga meet and he's eagerly awaiting an opportunity to defend his first crown at a meet he has quickly embraced.
"At Saratoga, you walk through crowds of people, you sign a lot of autographs and pose for a lot of pictures. There are so many kids and families who cheer for you. You get more pumped up for Saratoga. It's a great place to be. It's one of the most important tracks in North America. It's always good to go there," said Ortiz, who won the Belmont Stakes in June with Tapwrit, one of the top contenders for the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 26. "I was very happy to win the title last year and I'm going to work very hard to defend the title. But I know it's not going to be easy, there are so many good riders."
One of those main rivals for Ortiz figures to be Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who proudly owns the distinction of having more wins at Saratoga than any other rider, past or present.
"There's always been a special feeling at Saratoga. It's always been the place to be, a fun place, and I am very honored and blessed to be the track's all-time leading rider. I admire so many of the great riders who have been champions there, riders like Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero," Velazquez said. "The fans make it a special place. Without the fans we have nothing. It's the best horses, trainers and jockeys in the world, but the fans make it special, whether it's people in the owners' boxes or in the backyard. There's something there for everyone to enjoy."
With Cordero as his agent, Velazquez has won more than 700 races at Saratoga, and learned early in his career about the importance of each win at Saratoga from Cordero, a Hall of Fame jockey known as "The King of Saratoga" during a lengthy career that featured 14 titles at Saratoga.
"Saratoga is like the song about New York. If you can make there, you can make anywhere," Velazquez, five-time Saratoga riding champ, said. "It came into my head early. My first year Angel and I flew to Saratoga. We took a little plane from LaGuardia Airport to Saratoga and during the flight Angel told me how special Saratoga was and about all the great things that happen there. When you are successful at Saratoga it makes the rest of the year better. You'll find a lot of good horses after that and get some great opportunities. So it's the place to shine."
Velazquez is hoping that Saratoga spotlight will shine on Always Dreaming, the 3-year-old he rode to victory in the Kentucky Derby. Unraced since finishing a disappointing eighth behind the victorious Cloud Computing in the Preakness, Always Dreaming is targeting a return in the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 29.
"I'm looking forward to getting him back and hopefully we can get him into the routine that he had before the Kentucky Derby. He's doing we'll and we're excited about him coming to Saratoga," Velazquez said. "I hope he can return as good as ever and show that he's the real deal."
Always Dreaming is scheduled to face Brown's Cloud Computing in the Jim Dandy, a showdown that serves as a springboard to the Travers Stakes and stands as just one example of what makes Saratoga so popular. Great racing in a timeless setting. Day in and day out.
It happens for 40 days every summer, and it all starts with five words joyously proclaimed in unison by tens of thousands of people.
"And they're off at Saratoga!"
Indeed they are, and nirvana is at hand.