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Forty-day Saratoga season starts Friday - NBC Sports

Forty-day Saratoga season starts Friday
July 15, 2014, 6:15 pm

With the $1.5 million Whitney and the $1.25 million Travers serving as its glittering pillars, the 146th summer meet at Saratoga will open on Friday for a 40-day celebration of racing that once again will bring together the top horses, best jockeys and finest trainers in the nation.

Now the richest race on Saratoga's $17.45 million stakes schedule, the 1 1/8-mile Whitney on August 2 looks to attract the top older horses in the country, among them 2013 Belmont Stakes star Palace Malice, recent winner of the Metropolitan Handicap; 2013's top three-year-old, Will Take Charge, victorious in last year's Travers. Also on Whitney Day will be the $350,000 Test, the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap for sprinters, and two turf races: the $100,000 De La Rose for fillies and mares and the $100,000 Lure.

The 1 1/4-mile Travers for three-year-olds on August 2, is the next major target for Belmont winner Tonalist. Joining the "Mid-Summer Derby" on the card will be the $500,000 King's Bishop along with the $500,000 Ballerina for filly and mare sprinters and the $250,000 Ballston Spa for turf fillies and mares.

On Travers Eve, August 22, Ogden Phipps winner Close Hatches and runner-up Princess of Sylmar could renew their rivalry in the $500,000 Personal Ensign. Rounding out the weekend on August 24 is the first Saratoga Showcase Day, featuring six stakes restricted to New York-breds.

Saratoga also will be the summer home of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who could make it a three-peat in the $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap on August 9 or await the $250,000 Bernard Baruch Handicap on August 30.

"Saratoga is the gem of New York racing and American racing," said Martin Panza, NYRA's Senior Vice President of Racing Operations. "The rich stakes schedule, abundance of turf racing and the two-year-old races all combine to make Saratoga an unparalleled afternoon for both the experienced handicapper and the casual fan. Each racing day at Saratoga we work on getting people out to the track by enhancing our product and taking care of our guests by making it a good experience."

The leading trainers on the New York Racing Association (NYRA) circuit will be competing for the H. Allen Jerkens training title, won for the 10th time last year by Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, whose always-powerful two-year-old contingent is already revving up for the meet. Chad Brown, Linda Rice, Kiaran McLaughlin and David Jacobson will be among his challengers, along with Belmont Stakes-winning trainer Christophe Clement. As well, Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey, D. Wayne Lukas, Jonathan Sheppard, and Bill Mott will have a significant presence at the Spa, although the tradition of Mott winning a race on his birthday will be on hiatus this year as July 29 falls on a dark Tuesday.

Last year, Javier Castellano topped the jockey standings at Saratoga and took the Angel Cordero Jr. riding title for the first time en route to his first Eclipse Award. Expected to provide serious competition are brothers Jose and Irad Ortiz Jr. and Joel Rosario, as well as Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who last year broke Jerry Bailey's record and became the all-time winningest jockey at the Spa.

Friday's opening day feature, which goes as the third race due to attracting only a field of five, is the Grade 3, $150,000 Schuylerville for juvenile fillies over six furlongs.

The probable heavy favorite is Fashion Alert, who will seek to give trainer Todd Pletcher a fifth win in the race. The daughter of Old Fashioned kicked clear in the stretch of her debut, the $100,000 Astoria at Belmont Park on June 14, to win by 4 3/4 lengths under Velazquez.

"She's special," said owner George Bolton. "Obviously, Todd thought enough of her to start her off in a stakes. I hadn't seen her since March, and she'd grown up since then. From the way she gallops out and the (broodmare sire) Tiznow side, we're hoping distance won't be an issue for her this year."

Another sharp debut winner in the field is Tulira's Star, who won at first asking by 3 1/2 lengths over the Polytrack at Arlington on June 8 for breeder Curtis Green and trainer Jim DiVito. She has since been acquired by Team Valor International and is now trained by Rick Mettee.

Take Charge Brandi, a debut winner at Churchill Downs for six-time Schuylerville winner D. Wayne Lukas; New York-bred maiden winner Evrybdymstgetstonz; and maiden claiming scorer Mast Cove complete the lineup.

The supporting feature is the $100,000 Sir Cat, a one-mile inner turf test for three-year-olds that have never won a graded stakes on turf.

Among the likely favorites are Grade 2-placed multiple stakes winner Storming Inti, third in the Penn Mile last out; Cabo, hero of the $100,000 Manila at Belmont last time; and Tourist, an impressive wire-to-wire allowance winner going a mile at Belmont for Bill Mott.

Ring Weekend, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, was pulled up in his most recent start in the Pegasus at Monmouth Park, but was second to eventual American Derby winner Divine Oath in a turf allowance at Gulfstream last winter.

Pablo Del Monte, third in the Blue Grass two back, was entered for the main track only. He is one of six mounts, all trained by Wesley Ward, European superstar jockey Frankie Dettori has been named to ride on the opening day card.

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