The best horses, trainers and jockeys in the country flock to Saratoga for the 39-day meet that starts on Thursday. Racing at Saratoga has been conducted since 1863 with legendary sports writer Red Smith saying long ago: “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years.” The centerpiece of the proceedings is the Travers Stakes on August 27, when the best 3-year-olds in training compete in the Midsummer Derby.
The Horses: Derby, Preakness Winner Expected To Compete
The Travers will likely feature the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners in Rich Strike and Early Voting. Mo Donegal, the Belmont champion, is sidelined but Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher still has a contender in Charge It. Chad Brown is likely to send out Jack Christopher, who is 4-for-4 lifetime heading into the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 23.
Many 2-year-olds begin their careers and the best wind up running in six stakes races — three for colts and three for fillies. These can serve as a stepping stone to bigger things down the road, including the 2023 Derby.
Life Is Good, another Pletcher runner, is expected to be the favorite in the Whitney Stakes, one of the top races for older horses in the country. Jackie’s Warrior, the top sprinter in the land, will likely run in the Vanderbilt on July 30. If all goes well, he’ll return to race in the Forego on the Travers undercard. The Grade I Sword Dancer is also set for the Travers undercard and is the top turf race at the meet.
The Trainers: Brown, Pletcher Expected To Resume Domination
Pletcher has won a record 14 training titles at Saratoga, but Brown has taken over lately. Brown, who will join Pletcher in the Hall someday, has won four titles — all since 2016 — and won by 10 over Pletcher in 2021. One of the two has finished first or second since 2011. Pletcher does most of his winning on the dirt while Brown, a native of nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., prefers turf.
The issue with betting horses conditioned by Pletcher and Brown is that they usually offer little value when betting online, especially with the best jockeys always on their backs. Michael Maker finished third last year. Brad Cox, the two-time defending Eclipse Award winner for trainers, had 13 winners from 48 starters with his winning percentage of 27% higher than Brown (23), Pletcher (21) or Maker (18).
The Jockeys: Saez, Ortiz Brothers Headline Strong Colony
Luis Saez won his first Saratoga riding title in 2021, ending a run of dominance by the Ortiz brothers. Irad Ortiz Jr. won in 2015, 2018, and 2020 while Jose Ortiz wore the crown in 2016, 2017, and 2019. Value is hard to find with these guys, so if they can be had at 3-1 or higher in the horse racing odds, it is worth a long look.
The jockey colony also includes Joel Rosario and John Velazquez among others. Velazquez is the all-time wins leader at Saratoga. An up-and-coming rider on the New York circuit is Dylan Davis. The son of former jockey Robbie won 18 races at the Spa in 2021 and is capable of booting home a longshot or two.
Odds To Make Ends Meet
Bill Mott has won a race on July 29 in 16 of 19 opportunities with racing on that date. That happens to be the Hall of Fame trainer’s birthday. He will turn 69 during the third week of the meet. Mott, though, hasn’t blown out the candles after a victory since 2018, when he struck twice at $5.10 and $28.40. He conditioned a $19.20 winner in 2017.
Saratoga is sometimes known as the Graveyard of Favorites with the betting choice at the racebook hitting some 4% lower than the national average. That reputation was born when Upset handed Man o’ War his only career defeat in the 1919 Sanford Stakes. Other notable surprises came in 1973 when Onion scored a stunning victory over Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney Handicap. The last biggie occurred in 2015 when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah could not survive a speed duel and lost to Keen Ice in the Travers.
It’s hard to find longshots, but there’s a trainer worth keeping an eye on. Thomas Albertrani has won 13 races since 2017 with an average payout of $20.
Races at one mile out of the Wilson Chute will be contested at Saratoga for the first time in 50 years. The chute was demolished to put up a parking lot but reconstructed for this year’s meet. The “new” course makes its debut Thursday with the Wilton Stakes. The 1½-turn configuration offers a short run to the first turn, seemingly giving inside horses a big advantage.