Great Turnout for Opening Weekend at Saratoga
During a stellar opening weekend in Saratoga Springs, NY, not even the blistering weather could keep patrons away from the track in what was an extremely hot weekend. 25,155 people showed up to help kick off the 143rd Saratoga season. The figure was up 8.5 percent from last year’s total of 23,178 when wet conditions took over and forced three of the day’s five turf races to the dirt. Friday’s attendance figure was on par with the 25,444 who showed up in 2009, as the conditions were a bit cooler than they were on Thursday, when many people were worried that the weather would jeopardize Friday’s opener. The large crowd also helped surpass the opening day handle from last year, as ESPN is reporting that the on-track handle on Friday was $3,551,745, a 13.4 percent increase over last year’s handle of $3,130,756. An additional $407,383 was wagered on Saratoga at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, which were both open for simulcasting. If this is any indication of things to come, it should be a very successful season at Saratoga Springs.
In the seventh race of Friday’s program, there was a very sentimental pick gracing the winner’s circle. Astronaut, Mark Kelly, made the winning presentation to the winning horse, Pure Gossip, who was named after his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is recovering after being shot at a constituent event on January 8th. As a 37-1 longshot, Pure Gossip returned $76 to her backers with a 3 ¾-length victory for Flying Zee Stables in “The Gabrielle Giffords,” a maiden race for 2-year-old New York-bred fillies. Giffords’ chief of staff, Pia Carusone, is a Saratoga native and daughter of a local attorney, so there was a local feel to the victory. Through Sunday, the best 2-year-old in the country this year belonged to owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher. While neither is willing to put Overdriven in the same category as Uncle Mo – last year’s 2-year-old champion – both Repole and Pletcher were all smiles Sunday after Overdriven rushed to a four-length victory in the Grade 2, $150,000 Sanford Stakes in front of $18,971.
Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion, did not debut until Aug. 28 when he won by 14 1/2 lengths on Travers Day here. Overdriven, a son of Tale of the Cat, debuted on July 1, winning by 3 1/2 lengths and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. In order to make the Grade 1 Hopeful here on Sept. 5, Pletcher felt he had to run Overdriven back in a relatively short period of time — 23 days — to have sufficient spacing to that race. The short turnaround was no problem for Overdriven, who, under jockey John Velazquez, stalked Black Rhino through a quarter in 22.40 seconds, passed him at the three-eighths pole, and then ran away from him in the home stretch. Overdriven covered six furlongs in 1:10.60 and returned $2.60 as the 1-4 favorite. With $284,191 wagered on him to show out of $239,780, there was a minus-show pool of $45,550. John Velazquez told ESPN.com that Overdriven started to loaf a bit when he made the lead, but Velazquez simply waved the whip at him to get him to the wire first. “Once he had a target next to him he was very good,” Velazquez said. “He was very confident around the turn. As soon as I got past the other horse he went to wait – he was all by himself on the lead. I didn’t want to hit him, he was running good enough, just keep him busy.”
For Velazquez, it was his sixth victory in the Sanford, as he won all five races for Pletcher as well as on Buster’s Daydream in 2001. Velasquez has been very solid since his Kentucky Derby victory aboard Animal Kingdom, and I think that he will rack up many more victories this year as the season progresses. All in all, it was a successful weekend not only for Velazquez, but for the race course at Saratoga, as well as the rest of the thoroughbred racing world. Opening weekend at Saratoga Race Course drew a crowd of 66,037 fans; a 6 percent increase over the first three days of last year’s meet and wagering at the track saw a more dramatic spike as the on-track handle for the first three days grew $1.39 million to $10 million. All wagering activity on Saratoga races totaled $51 million when you factor in wagers from simulcasting and other betting locations. That was a $7.59 million increase from 2010 for the first three days of the 40-day meet, so expect a great turnout the rest of the way.