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40 Days, 40 Questions. Saratoga Preview: Part I

Friday marks the beginning of America’s premier race meeting: Saratoga. I am privileged to be part of a team (along with the wonderful Melaina Phipps, our esteemed managing editor Brian Zipse, and Horse Racing Nation’s newest addition, the brilliant Eclipse-Award winning writer Bill Heller) who will be chronicling the action for you over the course of the next seven weeks.
 
Saratoga, for the second consecutive year, will run for forty days. Here are the first twenty (of forty total, with the rest appearing tomorrow) questions whose answers will ultimately go a long way towards telling the story of Saratoga 2011:
 
1. Which of the outstanding crop of 3-year-old fillies will step forward in the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama?
 
The CC American Oaks appears to be coming up very strong, with fillies such as Buster’s Ready, It’s Tricky, Royal Delta, Plum Pretty and Joyful Victory entered in the race. Add in some other fillies like St. John’s River, Inglorious, Turbulent Descent, and Zazu, and you’ve got yourself one contentious division, whose two Grade I Saratoga contests will go a long way towards crowning a champion.
 
2. Can Big Drama make it back in time for the Forego?
 
As first reported by Mike Welsch in the Daily Racing Form, Big Drama is on the comeback trail. He’ll be kept in light training in Florida for the next thirty days, and trainer David Fawkes’s plan is to have him ready by the time the Forego rolls around on September 3rd. Can he make it?
 
3. Can any other sprinter take him down?
 
The James Marvin stakes on opening day may help provide us with an answer. The ungraded $75,000 race came up quite strong, as stakes winners Gayego, Jersey Town, Aikenite, and Caixa Eletronica are all part of the race’s elite field. The Vanderbilt on August 7th may also produce a candidate or two for sprint supremacy. That race is expected to feature another from the Fawkes barn, Apriority.
 
4. How will the fans react to the added emphasis on steeplechase racing?
 
Nine steeplechase races will be carded during this year’s meet, as part of NYRA’s effort to promote the jumpers. Will the fans partake?
 
5. With the Aqueduct VLT’s nearly operational, how much will NY breds sell for this year?
 
The price of NY breds exploded nine years ago, when it appeared that VLT construction was soon to commence. At long last, the project is no longer a pipe dream. The slots are almost ready to go. Purse increases are on the way for state-breds. With that in mind, how robust will the NY bred sales be?
 
6. What will the reaction on the backside be to the Breeders’ Cup’s lasix phase-out?
 
All of the major horsemen from New York and Kentucky (and even some from California) will maintain a presence at Saratoga. It is a time when many of the sport’s larger issues are addressed, as very rarely are racing’s most high-profile people all in the same place. What will the reaction be to the Breeders’ Cup’s recent announcement that lasix will be phased out by 2013?
 
7. Can Todd Pletcher defend his Saratoga training title?
 
Five-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher is only the one-time defending Saratoga champion. His 2010 Saratoga stand was masterful, highlighted by Quality Road’s conquest of the Woodward, and the debut of Uncle Mo. He trounced the competition, recording 36 victories, 16 more than his nearest competitor. This year, as usual, he comes in with some incredible stock, as he’ll send out horses such as Awesome Maria, Aikenite, Stay Thirsty, and new acquisition Sidney’s Candy, just to name a few.
8. Fresh of her 1,000th win, can Linda Rice return to her 2009 form, and capture a second Saratoga crown?
 
Over the past few years, as Saratoga has begun carding more and more turf sprints, Linda Rice has become an increasingly big player in the Saratoga trainer standings. She heads up north this year with a ton of momentum, having just notched her 1,000th win. All eyes will be on Rice to see if she can repeat her feat of two years ago, when she became the first female trainer to capture a training title at a major North American race meeting.
 
9. Will Mechanicsville, NY native Chad Brown improve on his stellar 2010 meet?
 
Chad Brown has proven immensely popular on this circuit over the past few years. A large part of his Saratoga following can be chalked up to the fact that he hails from nearby Mechanicsville. Make no mistake, though. Brown will be bringing with him a string as good as anyone’s this side of Pletcher’s. Will it prove to be enough to take down the reigning king?
 
10 Which other trainers will make their presence felt in the trainer’s race?
 
Kentucky Derby winning trainer Graham Motion and Preakness winning trainer Dale Romans are among the star-studded training line-up at the spa. Some of the others include Bill Mott, D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Al Stall. Who amongst this heralded group will break through to challenge the top three?
 
11. Can John Velazquez defend his Saratoga riding title?
 
It has been a whale of a year for John Velazquez. He did not win last year’s Eclipse Award for champion jockey. But short of that, almost everything else in his universe has gone right. He won his first Kentucky Derby this year, aboard Animal Kingdom. And he enters Saratoga with a meet crown to defend. He’ll need to ward off some hungry challengers in order to defend.
 
12. Will Ramon Dominguez take the next step and go from dominant day-to-day rider, to big “money” rider?
 
Ramon Dominguez has topped the jockey standings at 13 of the last 15 NYRA race meets. One of the two he lost was this year’s Aqueduct spring meet, an 18 day affair, during which he was absent six times (and still lost by only one race to Cornelio Velasquez). The other was Saratoga 2010, a meet which actually left him looking up at TWO different riders in the final standings. Dominguez took home last year’s Eclipse Award for champion jockey in spite of not having won a Breeders’ Cup or Classic race of any kind, and despite having won only four Grade I races, significantly fewer than his competitors in the category, Garrett Gomez and John Velazquez. With scheduled mounts in big races aboard stakes-winning horses like Aruna, Joyful Victory, Justin Phillip, Alternation, Rail Trip and Havre De Grace just to name a few, Dominguez will have ample opportunity to improve his reputation as a “money” rider.
 
13. Will Javier Castellano break through, after threatening to take home the riding title in 2010?
 
Despite having fallen just short of capturing a share of the 2011 Belmont spring riding crown, Javier Castellano has clearly established himself as one of the premier riders on the NYRA circuit. He won 54 races during Saratoga’s 40 day stand a year ago, falling just short of John Velazquez’s tally of 57. With backing from trainers like Pletcher, Brown, and others, it seems safe to say Castellano will be in the hunt once again.
 
14. Which other riders will make noise in the jockey standings?
 
Julien Leparoux heads a strong contingent from Kentucky, one which also includes Shaun Bridgmohan, Miguel Mena, Robby Albarado and others. Among the NYRA mainstays who figure also to be prominent in the rider standings are; Cornelio Velasquez, Alan Garcia, and Edgar Prado.
 
15. Can any of the older males separate themselves from the pack?
 
The Classic division has, frankly, been a complete mess this year. Apart from First Dude - who has separated himself from the pack with wins at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park - no one has seemed to be able to string a few races together amongst this bunch. Tizway will get his chance when he enters the gate for the Whitney on August 6th, coming in off of a dazzling performance in the Met Mile. But can he go 1 mile and one eighth, and can he do it at a track other than Belmont? Other contenders in the Whitney figure to include Friend or Foe, Rail Trip, Rodman, and Sidney’s Candy, who ventures east after spending almost all of his career to date out west.
 
16. With Animal Kingdom injured, which 3-year-old male will step up and seize control of a wide-open division?
 
Preakness winner Shackleford will opt to bypass the Jim Dandy in favor of the Haskell at Monmouth. In his absence, the leaders of the 3-year-old contingent at the spa figure to include Belmont Stakes runner-up Stay Thirsty, Peter Pan winner Alternation, and Dwyer winner Dominus.
 
17. Can a 3-year-old sprinter make a legitimate case for championship honors?
 
With the routers trading decisions like they have been in this division, can a sprinter step up and capture this division’s crown? The Amsterdam and the King’s Bishop will go a long way towards telling the tale. Leading contenders figure to include; JP’s Gusto, Justin Phillip, JJ’s Lucky Train, and Flashpoint. One wild card for the King’s Bishop is last year’s 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo. More on him in part two of this piece.
 
18. Will the Downstaters Come Out to Play?
 
NYRA has passed all of the tests so far in the eight months since the closure of New York City OTB. This final hurdle, though, may be its biggest. Both Aqueduct and Belmont will be open for simulcasting during the Saratoga meet, but business will be hurt by the closure of those 50 brick-and-mortar OTB parlors. Just how much business falls off will be a very interesting thing to watch over the course of this year’s meet.
 
19. Will my first food stop be at Hattie’s Chicken Shack or Shake Shack?
 
Ah, the most important question I’ve posed so far. In all seriousness, high-caliber food and
drink have become an increasingly big part of the Saratoga experience. It will be interesting to see how the drop in the price of beer (now $3 for a 12 ounce Coors Light) will affect sales. Also, new vendor Dunkin’ Donuts opens up a stand, to take the place of Carvel.
 
20. Can I come up with 20 more relevant questions to make this gimmick work?
 
Judging by the Murrow-esque quality of question 19, all signs seem to be indicating; no. But tune in later this afternoon to find out!

 

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Older Comments about 40 Days, 40 Questions. Saratoga Preview: Part I...

Good luck with 21 to 40, Joe! Saratoga can have as many steeplechases as they want. Just keep them out of the Pick 4 sequences!
Hatties! See ya 'round the track
The Haskell is the place to be for the best 3yo's in July, but to elaborate on your answer about them ... I look for Alternation to be the horse to watch in the Jim Dandy and the Travers.
Will Joe have 20-20 vision of the Spa meeting?

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