The racing action shifts to upstate New York on Friday for the opening day of Saratoga, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this summer with a 40-day meeting that brings together many of the best horses, owners, trainers and jockeys each summer.
Known by horseplayers simply as the Spa, Saratoga will host 53 graded stakes with purses of nearly $15 million. The highlight of the meeting each summer is the $1 million Travers on August 24.
It will be tough to top last year’s running of the Travers, which featured a dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket. The duo hit the wire together, and the tradition of painting the canoe in the lake took a new twist last year. The track had to go out and purchase a second canoe.
The Travers is known as The Midsummer Derby, and for the first time in three decades, we may see the winner of each jewel of this year’s Triple Crown compete in this year’s running.
Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice are all pointing toward a showdown in the Travers.
Oxbow will likely tune up for the Travers in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park on July 28, while Orb and Palace Malice likely will make their next start in the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga on July 27.
Todd Pletcher will be going for his fourth straight training title after setting a record last summer with 36 winners from his 149 starters.
Pletcher was dominant in juvenile races, winning 23 races, and 21 of them were maiden races. He sent out a long list of talented juveniles, including Charming Kitten, Dreaming of Julia, Kauai Katie, Notacatbutallama, Overanalyze, Shanghai Bobby, Palace Malice, Revolutionary and Violence.
Chad Brown may be the biggest threat to overtake Pletcher, the former Bobby Frankel assistant, finishing second in the trainer standings the past two years. Last year, Brown won 29 races with 95 starters, a 31 percent win clip, the best number among the top 20 trainers at last year’s meeting.
The jockey colony will be missing a familiar face with the retirement of Ramon Dominguez, who set a record last summer with 68 winners. Dominguez announced his retirement last month after being unable to fully recover from a spill in January at Aqueduct.
Even without Dominguez, the jockey colony will be deep, with eight of the top ten jockeys in earnings making their home at the Spa this summer.
Javier Castellano, who was second last year at the meeting with 51 winners, is coming off a title at the Belmont Park meeting and is the front-runner to win the Spa riding title.
His biggest threat figures to be John Velazquez, who won the title in 2010 and 2011 and was fourth last year with 30 winners. Velazquez missed some time at the beginning of the meeting, recovering from an injury suffered in a spill.
Velazquez is the regular rider for Pletcher, and if the trainer has another strong meeting with his juveniles, Velazquez figures to be the biggest beneficiary.
Joel Rosario will also be a threat to ride away with the jockey title. Rosario is leading all jockeys in the U.S. with 196 winners and is tops in earnings with $13.4 million.
Rosario shifted his tack to the east coast last June and has the advantage of having one of the best agents in the industry with Ron Anderson securing his mounts.
The rest of the jockey colony is deep and will include Jose Lezcano, Julien Leparoux, Rajiv Maragh, Rosie Napravnik, Cornelio Velasquez and Junior Alvarado.
Saratoga gets off to a quick start, with the $300,000 Coaching Club of America Oaks (G1), the first Grade 1 race of the meeting, coming up on Saturday.
Pletcher figures to get off to a good start, sending out a pair of runners in the first Grade 1 of the meeting on Saturday. He will saddle Unlimited Budget and Princess of Sylmar in the $300,000 Coaching Club of America Oaks (G1).
Unlimited Budget will be making her first start since taking on the boys in the Belmont Stakes (G1) where she checked in sixth. She won her first four career starts including the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2).
Her stablemate Princess of Sylmar figures to be the betting choice, making her first start since winning the Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs in an upset, the filly returning $79.60.
The co-feature on Saturday has some star power as well. Zenyatta’s little sister Eblouissante is back in action for the first time since January where she will take on six fillies and mares in the $200,000 Shuvee Handicap (G2).
Pletcher again will send out the betting favorite in Authenticity, who was a game second in the Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1) in her last outing on May 27 at Belmont Park.
First post at the Spa is 1:00 p.m. ET, and the track will race six days a week with Tuesdays the lone dark day.
Follow me on Twitter @turfnsport