There’s been a lot of turmoil in the Sport of Kings of late, but everything will be right with the racing world again next week when Del Mar and Saratoga swing open their pearly gates.
Neither track actually has pearls on its doorway, as far as I know, but horseplayers know what I’m talking about. Summer doesn’t really begin until racing returns to the Spa and the House that Bing Built, no matter what the calendar says. And when it does, seeing the sport at its finest has an uncanny ability to chase the darkest clouds away – at least for a while.
Saratoga Race Course will show the way this year, reopening on Thursday for its 40-day summer meet that concludes on Sept. 6, Labor Day. The Saratoga Springs oval, which first opened for business in 1863, will offer 76 stakes worth $21.5 million in total purses over the course of the meet.
The racing should be pretty good, too, with an opening week stakes featuring the Quick Call and Schuylerville, both Grade 3s, on Thursday; the Forbidden Apple (Gr. 3) on July 16; the Grade 1 Diana and the Sanford, a Grade 3, on July 17; and the Coronation Cup turf dash the following day.
In addition to whatever transpires on the track, New York Racing Association officials will be celebrating the return to normalcy, with 100 percent capacity approved following last year’s fanless racing.
Del Mar, where “the surf meets the turf” and opening day traditions merely date to 1937, will open the day after Saratoga for its 31-day summer meeting that also ends on Sept. 6. The track will offer 34 stakes races — up two from last year — worth a total of $6.75 million, beginning with the $100,000 Oceanside Stakes on opening day.
Del Mar, which will race on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays before adding Thursday cards on July 29, will have some restrictions on attendance to begin with. It will offer 100 percent capacity for racegoers in its seating areas throughout the facility, which can accommodate 14,994 fans, but there will be no general admission tickets and the infield will be shut. Racing officials are hopeful they will be able to ease that restriction after the meet is up and running.
Those who attend or tune in will once again be able to listen to the live poetry of race-caller Trevor Denman, who is back behind the mic after taking a COVID hiatus last year.
Belmont goes out with a bang
While Saratoga and Del Mar are still a week away, there’s no need to sit on your wallet this weekend.
Belmont Park has some very nice racing planned for the conclusion of its spring-summer meet, headlined by a pair of Grade 1 turf contests going 1¼-miles: the $1 million Belmont Derby Invitational for 3-year-olds and the $700,000 Belmont Oaks Invitational for 3-year-old fillies.
The latter — the first leg of the Turf Triple series for sophomore fillies — will feature even-money favorite Santa Barbara, who just missed winning a Group 1 stakes in Ireland for trainer Aidan O’Brien in her last start, along with a pair of other European invaders.
The Belmont Derby field, meanwhile, will be led by multiple Group 3-winner Bolshoi Ballet, trained by Aidan O’Brien, and the Bill Mott-trained Grade 2 American Turf-winner Du Jour, who will be ridden by moonlighting California rider Flavien Prat.
Ellis Starr’s Belmont Derby Invitational analysis
Tokyo Gold (FR) had a fairly good 2-year-old campaign when winning his second and third starts last summer, the latter of the two in a listed stakes. Finishing off the year, Tokyo Gold (FR) was beaten more than 20 lengths in a Group 3 race, but that was run on heavy ground which he did not care for one bit. Returning for his sophomore season in March, Tokyo Gold (FR) finished second in a listed stakes before a fourth of nine finish in the Prix Noailles Stakes. His “light bulb” moment came in the Italian Derby on May 23 when, after racing in the back of the pack for most of the race, Tokyo Gold (FR) took to the middle of the track and accelerated strongly to win by four lengths, eased up at the finish. The acceleration shown when given his cue in the Italian Derby showed Tokyo Gold (FR) had come of age and the pattern of improving Equibase Speed Figures (97, 105 then 107) suggests Tokyo Gold (FR) is the one to beat in this year’s Belmont Derby Invitational, particularly as he is shortening up in distance from 1 3/8ths to 1 1/4 miles and gets John Velazquez to ride.
Bolshoi Ballet (IRE) was sent to post as the fairly heavy favorite in the Epsom Derby last month on the strength of his six-length win one month earlier in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial but checked in seventh. The reason for the poor effort was revealed as soon as the colt returned to be unsaddled as it was discovered he had sustained a cut to his hind leg in the early portion of the race. Prior to the Derby Trial, Bolshoi Ballet (IRE) won the Ballysax Stakes rather easily in his 3-year-old debut and following six months off. Earning a 106 figure in the Ballysax before a new career-best 113 figure in the Derby Trial, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume the colt would have improved again in the Epsom Derby if not for the injury and so if he returns to the form shown in those two earlier wins, both at 1 1/4-mile distance of the Belmont Derby, Bolshoi Ballet (IRE) could provide us with a thrilling battle with Tokyo Gold (FR) in this race.
Hard Love is an improving colt who has potential to post the minor upset if he continues the pattern of improvement he began in April after returning from five months off. After winning his career debut last fall, Hard Love improved to a 102 figure effort when second in the Central Park Stakes then, following the layoff, won the Woodhaven Stakes in April with a 99 figure. Flattered when the runner-up won his next start, Hard Love entered an allowance race over this turf course to prepare for the Belmont Derby and although not a stakes race it must be noted he was only one of two 3-year-olds in the 12 horse field, the rest being older horses. Improving markedly to a 105 figure winning that race, if Hard Love can take a similar step forward by six points into the 111 range he could run as well as either Bolshoi Ballet (IRE) and Tokyo Gold (FR) and as such may have a legitimate shot to win this year’s Belmont Derby Invitational.
Another improving colt is Du Jour, who has won three races in a row. The pattern of improvement from 84 to 99 to 103 in terms of his Equibase Speed Figures shows a horse which is getting physically and mentally stronger as the season goes on. Du Jour earned his most recent win in the American Turf Stakes on Kentucky Derby day and prevailed nicely in a field of 14. Now in the hands of Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott and retaining the services of jockey Flavien Prat, who has been in the saddle for all three of the colt’s wins, Du Jour has to be a horse we consider when wagering on this race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Cellist (99); Hidden Enemy (IRE) (93); Palazzi (98); Safe Conduct (99); and Sainthood (101).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.