SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The numbers were big for the New York Racing Association at Saratoga this summer, in both good and bad ways.
On the positive side, Saratoga set a record for all-sources handle with $676,709,490 being wagered on the 40-day meet that concluded Monday. That surpassed the record of $648,272,805 wagered in 2015. This year’s handle was up 4.5 percent over last year’s figure of $647,322,503.
Ontrack handle was $157,014,965, just missing the record $157,647,599 wagered here in 2015, but up 3.4 percent from last year’s figure of $151,841,828.
Total attendance, or paid admissions, for the summer was 1,117,838, just off the record of 1,123,647 set in 2016.
There were 406 races run at this meet compared to 413 in 2015 and 408 last year. There were 193 turf races run, with 27 taken off due to inclement weather. In 2015, there were 211 turf races run with only eight being rained off the turf. Field size this year was 8.25 horses per race, up from last year’s 8.09, but down slightly from the 8.36 figure in 2015.
“We were extremely pleased with this year’s handle,” Chris Kay, NYRA president and chief executive officer, said Monday. “It’s a real credit to everyone in the organization, but in particular the racing department, that we were able to generate such handle.”
Kay also credited the expansion of NYRA Bets, the organization’s advance deposit wagering platform, and Saratoga Live, a daily 2- to 2 1/2-hour program of televised live racing that expanded into Southern California and Ohio this year, as reasons for increased business.
On the negative side, the equine fatality rate was high this summer with 15 racing- or training-related fatalities during the meet, one more than last year. The 15 doesn’t include two horses who died of colic. Eight of the 15 fatalities occurred on the main track, with four more coming in turf races.
“All of us grieve whenever a horse goes down,” Kay said. “We looked at the data along with the Gaming Commission to see if there were any trends. If there was a trend, believe me we would have identified it and taken steps.”
In addition to the fatalities, there were many horses who were injured during the meet, including Schuylerville winner Dream It Is and Sanford winner Copper Bullet. Several prominent trainers, such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Ian Wilkes, stopped working their horses over the main track and utilized the Oklahoma training track almost exclusively.
The top three finishers from the Travers – West Coast, Gunnevera and Irap – did not train here, nor did the winners of the Grade 1 Personal Ensign (Forever Unbridled) and Forego (Drefong).
Sunday’s Grade 1 Spinaway for juvenile fillies drew only a field of five, three of whom were based at Saratoga, a meet at which two-year-old racing is the backbone.
Some horsemen have wanted the main track to be opened earlier in the summer for training so that any potential issues with the surface could be identified and addressed before the meet began. With Saratoga no longer contracted to hold a horse show on track grounds beginning next year, Kay said opening the main track earlier would be considered.
The battle for leading trainer, jockey, and owner went down to the final day. Todd Pletcher edged Chad Brown 40-39, regaining the title he surrendered to Brown last year and equaling Brown’s single-meet record for Saratoga. It was the 13th Saratoga training title for Pletcher, and he tied Brown’s single-meet record despite not having won a Grade 1 stakes here for the first time since 2009.
“The whole team put a lot of work into it, proud of the whole staff,” said Pletcher, who mentioned the job trainers Anthony Sciametta (Monmouth), Byron Hughes (Belmont) and Tristan Barry (Saratoga) did this summer. “We’ve come here a lot of years and never won 40; it’s hard to do. I told Chad when he did it, it was a hell of an accomplishment. Those guys are tough to beat, we exceeded expectations and proud of it.”
Brown finished second to Pletcher for the sixth time in the last seven years, but he did lead Pletcher in purse money won with $4.35 million to $3.55 million.
“I’m proud of that mostly because that’s money that’s earned by the horses and the majority goes to the clients,” Brown said. “Our business is to hopefully provide good service to our clients and do a good job with the horses, and in the process earn prize money for as much as they invest. They had a really, really strong meet, as have we. I’m glad we put on a good show.”
Jose Ortiz didn’t clinch the riding title until he won Monday’s sixth race on Engage, trained by Brown. He finished with 58 wins, five more than his brother Irad. Earlier on Monday’s card, Irad claimed foul against Jose, who had won the third race on No Hiding Place. The stewards disqualified No Hiding Place from first, placing him fourth behind Driving Me Crazy and Irad.
Jose Ortiz called winning the rider title for a second straight year “huge.” Among his victories were the Grade 1 Alabama on Elate and the Grade 1 Test on American Gal – races he won for the first time.
“It is very tough,” he said. “A lot of racing, six days a week. You get tired, you get worn out the last couple of weeks; a lot of work in the morning. There is a lot of talent sitting back in the room,” Ortiz said.
Michael Dubb won his fourth straight Saratoga owner’s title with 15 wins, two more than Seth Klarman’s Klaravich Stable and William Lawrence.
Among the equine stars this summer were Gun Runner, Lady Eli and Voodoo Song. Gun Runner won both the Grade 1 Whitney and Grade 1 Woodward by a combined 15 1/2 lengths to put him in position to be Horse of the Year should he win the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar.
Lady Eli won both the Grade 1 Diana and Grade 2 Ballston Spa, and she now is in position for her first Eclipse Award in the Female Turf Horse category should she win her Breeders’ Cup race.
Voodoo Song became the first contemporary horse to win four races at a single meet when he capped a sensational summer with a victory in the Grade 3 Saranac on Saturday. Previously, he won a $40,000 claimer and two New York-bred allowance races.
After a three-day hiatus, racing on this circuit resumes Friday at Belmont Park.