2008 Saratoga Preview

Wednesday marks the beginning of the 140th racing season at Saratoga Race Course and it will no doubt be another spectacular meet.  Last year NYRA was working under a cloud as they battled to retain the racing franchise.  This year, they’ve made quite a few changes to the Saratoga meet that should make the best meet of the year even better.  The highlights include new betting options, new food options, and larger fields in route races.

As for the food options, the big news is that there will be Hattie’s chicken at the track!  Hattie is long gone, but her fabulous fried chicken lives on!  Growing up in Saratoga, I have fond memories of takeout from Hattie’s Chicken Shack.  Hattie’s Restaurant is still at the same location it’s been in for the past 40 years and is worth a visit if you enjoy southern cooking.  As long as I’m on food, the other great treat for me when I go to the races at Saratoga is ribs from PJ’s BAR-B-Q.  They are my absolute favorite.  (Don’t get there too early – I don’t want to have to wait in line behind you!)

Of course, the real meat for racing fans will be the 31 graded stakes races on the menu.  In last year’s Saratoga preview, I took a shot at predicting the winner of 25 graded stakes (excluding those for two-year-olds) and didn’t do too bad.  He’s my list of fearless predictions for 2008:

Graded Stakes for Two-year-olds

Two-year-olds are a big part of racing at Saratoga and many high priced runners make their debut here early in the meet, so pay special attention to the Maiden Special Weight races for two-year-olds and you might see a future champion make his debut.  (I like to go out to the paddock area for these races to get a good look at these well-bred multi-million dollar investments).  A couple of these precocious babies will go on to win a graded stakes later on in the meet.

There’s no point in trying to predict now which horses will win these graded stakes, but I do try to predict which trainers will do well.  In 2006, Todd Pletcher won four of the six graded stakes for two-year-olds and Scott Blasi (covering for Steve Asmussen) won the other two.  Last year, the six races were won by six different trainers.  Fearless Predictions:  Three wins for Asmussen.  Two for Pletcher.  One for Bill Mott.

Graded Stakes for 3-Year-Olds on Dirt

For the sprinters, there are two graded stakes each for the males and females.  Fearless Predictions:  True Quality in the Amsterdam, Indian Blessing in the Test, J Be K in the King’s Bishop, Game Face in the Victory Ride.

Street Sense swept the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes last year.  This year’s Travers could be very interesting if Big Brown can return to form.  Fearless Predictions:  Pyro in the Jim Dandy, Big Brown in the Travers.

The Alabama should be a real treat given how many exciting three-year-old fillies we’ve see so far this year.  Fearless Prediction:  Music Note

Graded Stakes for 3-Year-Olds on Turf

There are two graded stakes on the turf apiece for three-year-old colts and fillies.  Fearless Predictions:  My Princess Jess in the Lake George, Sporting Art in the National Museum of Racing, Namaste’s Wish in the Lake Placid, and Gio Ponti in the Saranac.

Graded Stakes – Dirt Sprints for Older Horses

A Grade 1 and a Grade 2 each for the older males and females.  Fearless Predictions:  Bustin Stones in the Vanderbilt, Rite Moment in the Honorable Miss, Dream Rush in the Ballerina, and Benny the Bull in the Forego.

Graded Stakes – Dirt Routes for Older Horses

For the older males, there are two Grade 1’s:  the Whitney opening weekend and the Woodward closing weekend.  Curlin’s flirtation with turf racing certainly opens up this division, unless Steve Asmussen decides to return him to dirt.  The older females also get two Grade 1’s, the Go For Wand and the Personal Ensign.  Fearless Predictions:  Giant Gizmo in the Whitney, Ginger Punch in the Go For Wand, Hystericalady in the Personal Ensign, and Grasshopper in the Woodward.

Graded Stakes – Turf Routes for Older Horses

Last year, the three graded stakes turf routes for older distaff runners went to:  My Typhoon, Wait A While and Rosinka.  This year’s Fearless Predictions:  Wait A While in the Diana, Rutherienne in the Ballston Spa, and Rosinka to repeat in the Glens Falls.

The three graded turf stakes for older males last year went to Silver Tree, Grand Couturier and Shakis.  This year there is a chance that Steve Asmussen will decide to give Curlin another try on the grass and that could happen in the Sword Dancer.  Fearless Predictions:  Thorn Song in the Forestardave, Red Rocks in the Sword Dancer, and Sudan in the Bernard Baruch.

Fearless Curlin Prediction:  Steve Asmussen is based at Saratoga and he could easily decide to send out Curlin for another turf try in the Sword Dancer or switch him back to dirt in the Woodward, but I’ll predict that he sits him for the summer and targets the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park before heading west for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Well, there you go.  Several of my picks won’t even enter the races I’ve picked them to win, but that’s the chance you take picking this far in advance.  And yes, I know, it looks like a chalk fest, but that’s who wins most of these races.  Good trainers know how to target their best horses for specific races and you can be sure that Saratoga has been on their radar all year.

In any case, good luck, have fun and enjoy these precious few weeks at The Spa!

(If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can follow my daily Saratoga picks at SaratogaHandicapper.com)