Saratoga's my favourite - but what makes it so great?

International racing expert Nicholas Godfrey explains what's so special about 'America's racetrack', where the summer season begins on Thursday, live on Sky Sports Racing.

By Nicholas Godfrey

“Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga and your horse naturally won.”

FRANKLY, there was probably no other realistic choice for Carly Simon’s smug jet-setting inamorato when he fancied a day at the races in her 1972 worldwide smash hit You’re So Vain.

But whether it was Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger, they certainly knew where to locate US racing at its pinnacle during those 40 days of summer. Imagine an eight-week Glorious Goodwood and you’re getting the idea, although any such comparisons can never be entirely legitimate, for Saratoga is totally unique.

Let’s be upfront about this, however: I am biased on this particular subject, because whenever anyone asks me about what is my favourite racecourse, they’ll get the same answer.

Renowned as the sacred keeper of US racing’s spiritual flame, America’s most beloved racetrack is set to provide a staple of Sky Sports Racing’s nightly coverage five days a week until the annual meeting ends on Labor Day, the first Monday in September. (Mondays and Tuesdays are usually the days off, apart from high days and holidays.)

But just what makes Saratoga so great? Well, there is the quality for a start, as this utterly beguiling venue is nothing short of an institution to the US racing community. As their Californian counterparts head down to Del Mar every summer, the foremost jockeys and trainers on the east coast decamp en masse to rural upstate New York, where the graded stakes start straight away on Thursday with the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes for two-year-old fillies.

Saturday’s $500,000 Diana Stakes is the first Grade 1; many more will follow, highlighted on August 24 by the Travers Stakes, the $1.25 million ‘midsummer derby’ and closest thing to a Classic outside the Triple Crown. This is the race in which American Pharoah, the horse who ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, suffered a stunning defeat, thereby adding his name to the litany of greats who have fallen victim to the curse of the so-called ‘Graveyard of Champions’ – among them the greatest of them all in that celebrated pair of ‘Big Reds’, Man o’ War and Secretariat. Wimbledon’s infamous Court No. 2 has got nothing on this.

‘America’s racetrack’ is located in the spa town of Saratoga Springs – hence another of its many nicknames, ‘The Spa’ – just south of the Adirondacks, about 200 miles north of the Big Apple and 40 miles from state capital Albany. There are many worse ways to arrive than via the Amtrak as it follows the Hudson River after leaving Manhattan’s Penn Station.

A well-heeled place – think manicured lawns, decorative gardens and ornamental street lamps – Saratoga Springs exudes a fading gentility epitomised by the crumbling clapboard houses in the immediate vicinity of the racetrack.

Elsewhere, though, it is a more lively destination, an array of vintage clothes emporia, bookshops and second-hand record outlets testifying to a fair-sized student population.

However, Saratoga Springs is remarkable for one principal reason, when it is roused from its amiable slumber in a short burst every summer for its showpiece race meeting. Motel prices are trebled - always assuming you can find a room – as Broadway, the main drag, becomes Party Grand Central as racing fans shed their inhibitions in the bars and restaurants. Siro’s near the track is a longstanding favourite; Hattie’s Chicken Shack and the Brook Tavern likewise.

Be that as it may, the horse remains firmly centre stage. In terms of prestige, America has nothing to match Saratoga, top-class horse racing set against the most enchanting of backdrops.

Racing was established in Saratoga a month after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when ex-boxing champ-turned-casino owner (and later congressman) John Morrissey organised a four-day meet at what later became known as Horse Haven, near the training track across the street from today’s site. With several wealthy business associates encouraged to join the venture, the track was moved across the street for the 1864 meet.

Rich with tradition, a special aura still seems to surround the whole place, from its unmistakeable steepled stands – slate roofs, slanted turrets and timber tresses – to the wooded backlot, scene of a huge daily picnic, to the infield gazebo and ornamental lake that contains a canoe, painted annually in the colours of the Travers winner.

A hand-rung bell signifies ‘riders up’ precisely 17 minutes before each race; racegoers can refill their bottles from the Big Red Spring, a mineral spring jetting three fountains of the precious Saratoga elixir from beneath a large white pavilion towards the rear of the picnic area.

Admittedly, no-one could describe Saratoga’s facilities as cutting-edge and in places this seems almost a deliberate policy, an exercise in planned quaintness. Red and white striped parasols and awnings overlook TV screens and restaurants in the charming wooden-framed main stand, said to be the oldest continually used facility in American sport - though contrary to popular belief, Saratoga cannot claim to be the oldest racetrack altogether, having been pre-dated by both Fair Grounds in New Orleans and the Pleasanton Fairgrounds. Even older is the Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, where they stage only harness racing.

Horses chasing million-dollar purses are saddled up in the Saratoga parade ring around trees with ragged-looking number boards tied around them. Pari-mutuel boards look almost sepia-tinted, probably there the day Man o’War was beaten, sit above ancient betting counters. No slot machines here to destroy the ambience – they were exiled to the harness track just down the road.

They do love their history at Saratoga: the annual induction ceremony for each new class of graduates to the US Hall of Fame, the highest accolade the sport can bestow, takes place each August at the National Racing Museum on the other side of Union Avenue, not far from the Oklahoma Training Track, where the Whitney Stand is a replica of the 19th Century original allowing public viewing of daily workouts.

Among horses buried at the Clare Court jogging track is Fourstardave, the ‘Sultan of Saratoga’ who won at least one race at the track every season from 1987-94; a Grade 1 is named after him. Champion filly Go For Wand, who suffered a fatal injury during the stretch run of the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, is buried on the infield. Yet another nod to the early days of US racing comes on the inner turf course via a weekly steeplechase, a branch of the sport virtually obsolete elsewhere.

But that’s Saratoga for you, a living crucible of racing history as compelling in the 21st Century as it must have been in the 19th. A place like no other.

GRAVEYARD OF CHAMPIONS: FIVE SHOCK DEFEATS AT THE SPA

1919 SANFORD MEMORIAL – MAN O’ WAR

The legendary Man o’ War – number one in the Blood-Horse’s list of Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century – suffered his only defeat in 21 career starts when he went down to the fittingly named colt Upset as a two-year-old. An urban myth was duly born concerning the use of the word ‘upset’ to denote a surprise victory; the term was already in common parlance long before this half-length score. Moreover, there were excuses: Man o’ War was giving his rival 15lb, got a dreadful start and was boxed in. He beat Upset on four other occasions.

1930 TRAVERS STAKES - GALLANT FOX

Gallant Fox won nine of his ten races during a triumphant three-year-old campaign, in the process becoming America’s second Triple Crown winner (after Sir Barton in 1919). The race he lost, though, came when he was stunned in the Travers Stakes by eight-length victor Jim Dandy, a 100-1 shot. A muddy track was blamed, and trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons claimed the champion had run only at the insistence of his owner. Jim Dandy’s is remembered in a $600,000 Grade 2 contest at the Spa.

1973 WHITNEY HANDICAP - SECRETARIAT

Having added to his Triple Crown laurels with a nine-length victory at Arlington, Secretariat was sent off a 1-10 chance in the Whitney. In front of what was then the largest crowd in Saratoga history, he could not get past the unheralded Onion, who recorded a stunning all-the-way success for trainer Allen Jerkens, who became known as the ‘Giant Killer’ (though he always preferred his other nickname, ‘The Chief’). A low-grade infection attributed to a shock result, and Onion – who, admittedly, had set a 6 1/2-furlong track record not long before – was only fourth behind Big Red next time out in Belmont’s Marlboro Cup.

2010 PERSONAL ENSIGN INVITATIONAL - RACHEL ALEXANDRA

Unbeaten during a flawless Horse of the Year campaign in 2009 in which she became a household name, Rachel Alexandra was never at the same level as a four-year-old. However, she regained the winning thread on her previous two starts before returning to Saratoga as a 1-2 favourite for the Personal Ensign, in which 21-1 shot Persistently effectively ended her career as she closed for a length-and-a-half victory. "I had everything my way, and she just got outrun," said jockey Calvin Borel.

2015 TRAVERS STAKES - AMERICAN PHAROAH

After becoming the first Triple Crown winner for 37 years, American Pharoah fought valiantly to get the better of a duel with chief rival Frosted, only to get mugged inside the final furlong by late-running longshot Keen Ice. “Pharoah was just flat,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “Lots of shipping and running caught up to him.” Normal service was resumed on his career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where his Saratoga conqueror was 12 1/2 lengths behind in fourth.


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