Resilience and restoration
Shortly after the Second Battle of Saratoga, a young lieutenant with the New York militia, Benjamin Mooers, led a group of officers to High Rock Spring, where they drank deeply from the medicinal waters and refreshed themselves. Even then, in 1777, according to The History of Saratoga County, New York, High Rock "had attained some celebrity as the great medicine spring."
A few years later, General George Washington also found the spring water to be restorative. And Friday, horse racing could also find something refreshing and restorative not far from High Rock, with the start of the Saratoga season.
This is where several of the nation's best older horses will meet, where many of the best 3-year-olds, sprinters and turf horses could clarify their divisions, and where, you can be certain, some future champions will emerge. Since 2000, 13 champions have begun their careers at Saratoga.
If there had been a tax on stupidity, horse racing would have produced enough revenue to balance the budget.
This expectation, which is not very unlike a child's on Christmas morning, has become a large part of the Saratoga mystique: knowing, even before a maiden race, that out there beneath the elms somewhere could be the sport's next superstar, or perhaps a future champion, and knowing that an imminent moment could rip away the wrapping paper. The revealing might require some time, as it did, for example, with the appropriately named Wait A While, who finished fifth in her debut on Aug. 29, 2005, but then won her next outing, her first on turf, by five lengths, and went on to become an Eclipse Award winner the following year; or the future champion could appear like an aurora, as Uncle Mo did two years ago, on Aug. 28, when he won his debut by more than 14 lengths.
The sport has had its elevating and exciting moments this year, to be sure, but for the most part it has struggled through the winter and spring, like a cross-country skier over rough terrain. The recent months proved especially difficult, preoccupied as they were with an anticlimactic Triple Crown, a flood of "frog juice" positives, a roiling argument over therapeutic medication, and some very dubious media coverage. If there had been a tax on stupidity, horse racing would have produced enough revenue to balance the budget.
But the sport has an awe-inspiring capacity. And this is the time and Saratoga one of the places for horse racing to replenish itself.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the Saratoga season begins by featuring a stakes race for 2-year-old fillies, the Schuylerville. Friday's renewal has attracted a field of seven, and it's just the sort of race that typifies Saratoga, overflowing with expectation and potential. Fully Living, for example, a $425,000 yearling purchase and a daughter Unbridled's Song, won her debut back in May at Belmont with a tenacious effort. Also among those entered are Baby J, a scatback of a filly; So Many Ways, an eight-length debut winner; and Can't Explain, the close runner-up to Fully Living despite a faintly hesitant start and a slightly wide trip.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Can't Explain, has won the Schuylerville four times. Over the years, Pletcher has sent out the winners of 18 Saratoga stakes races for 2-year-olds.
"We're very pleased with the way the early ones have started," said Pletcher, who already has won nine races for juveniles this year. "But we're still a few weeks away from knowing where we are with many of our 2-year-olds. Saratoga is the proving ground."
Some of the most promising 2-year-olds in the country have been pointed to Saratoga, where maidens can race for a purse that jingles with as much as $80,000, and where average daily purses are soaring to $930,000. Over 40 days of racing, the track will offer eight stakes for 2-year-olds, making Saratoga a proving ground indeed.
Pletcher said he has three youngsters aimed at Sunday's Sanford Stakes: Shanghai Bobby, a nimble and nifty son of Harlan's Holiday who's already a stakes winner, having taken the Track Barron at Belmont; Rose Junction, a Dixie Union colt who won his debut by three; and Onetwentyeight, who, as announcer Tom Durkin said, "went to the front and improved his position" in his debut. And Pletcher has Drum Roll, a snappy maiden winner at Monmouth, aimed at the Saratoga Special on Aug. 12.
Another colt who could emerge during this season of replenishing is Palace Malice, a powerfully built son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. In his debut at Belmont, he found himself in a box but then forced his way between horses and rallied to finish second.
"We always thought he could be one of our better 2-year-olds," Pletcher said about Palace Malice. "And since he's bred to run long, we were impressed and pleased that he ran so well in his debut at five-eighths of a mile."
Last year, Pletcher won 58 races for juveniles, and his 2-year-olds earned $2.97 million, second only to trainer Steve Asmussen, who won 59 juvenile races and whose 2-year-olds earned $4.09 million. And with his stable reinforced by youngsters from the famed Stonestreet Farm of the late Jess Jackson, Pletcher could ladle out much of the replenishing in the coming months.
The other source of restoration is Del Mar, the West Coast version of Saratoga, which begins its season Wednesday. Saratoga has the restorative springs, Del Mar has the Pacific Ocean, and they both have exciting 2-year-olds bristling with potential and promise. Since 2000, 11 champions have begun their careers at Del Mar, including Halfbridled, Vindication and Point Given.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has won more stakes at Del Mar than any trainer in the track's history, far more, in fact, for he sits atop the stakes-winning list with 93, followed in the hierarchy by Charlie Whittingham and Ron McAnally at 74. And 33 of those Baffert victories, amazingly enough, came in stakes races for 2-year-olds, including 10 in the Del Mar Futurity.
Already Baffert has unveiled a potential star in Executiveprivilege, a 2-year-old filly who won the recent Landaluce Stakes at Hollywood Park. On behalf of a partnership that includes Mike Pegram, Baffert bought her in April out of an auction in Ocala, Fla., for $650,000.
"I work the sales hard," Baffert said, explaining how he seems to uncover promising youngsters year after year. "And I have some great owners. But you have to look everywhere because you never know where you're going to find the next good one."
And Executiveprivilege appears to be a good one, a rare combination of speed, professionalism and potential. She could be aimed at the Sorrento Stakes on Aug. 8 or the Debutante on Sept. 2, but certainly and ultimately at the Breeders' Cup.
As for the young colts in his barn, Baffert said it was still too early, much too early, to reach any conclusions. But he mentioned Power Broker and Cameo Appearance as two that have impressed him.
They could emerge at Del Mar, as could many others, of course. With its glamorous history and its ocean breeze, Del Mar is the other racetrack, along with Saratoga, that possesses a seemingly magical and restorative power that can replenish a sport in need.