6 weeks of heavenly race cards at Saratoga and Del Mar

6 weeks of heavenly race cards at Saratoga and Del Mar

July 18, 2017 3:08 AM


While the majority of casual racing fans tell time by the Triple Crown each spring, the vast majority of experienced horseplayers annually see the next six weeks to Labor Day as the most important and best racing of the year.

That’s because the two most compelling race meets are about to take place: The historic race meet at Saratoga in upstate New York and the compelling race meet at Del Mar, nestled near the Pacific Ocean, about 20 miles north of San Diego.

Del Mar is set to begin its 36 day season this Wednesday, July 19, while Saratoga’s 40 day season will begin Friday, July 21. Both tracks will run through Labor Day Monday, Sept. 4. But Del Mar will run just five days a week, Wednesdays through Sundays, while Saratoga will race six days each week, going dark only on Tuesdays.

For more information about the nuances of their respective schedules, including stakes dates, ticket prices, regular and special post times, different wagering menus and special promotions, I suggest going to their web sites: saratogaracetrack.com and dmtc.com.

Beyond those details, here are some background facts and impressions I’ve personally gleaned from playing the horses at both tracks a combined 60-plus times through the past 40 years.

For starters, Saratoga’s inherent charm is rooted in the fact it was built toward the end of the Civil War and is the oldest sporting venue in America. One of its prime builders was William Travers, part-owner of the horse named Kentucky, the 1864 winner of the first running of the race named for him.

Continuing briefly with this history, much of the original wooden grandstand still remains, along with modern improvements and expansions that have not altered the look of the place that greeted its first patrons more than 150 years ago. The parking lot is mostly grass; the horses are saddled under beautiful trees; picnic tables are readily available and horseplayers who want to watch morning workouts can do so while eating a terrific home-cooked breakfast.

Get the picture? We’re talking about a racing facility that is a throwback to a by-gone era; yet, a track that hosts many of this country’s most prestigious stakes while providing comfortable venues for dozens of the world’s top jockeys and horse trainers.

You also should know that the National Museum of Racing is less than 300 yards away from the track entrance where you will find terrific exhibits about Man o’ War, Secretariat and other greats of the game. Give yourself a few hours. Meanwhile, the quaint town of Saratoga Springs retains its charm and is worth a trip any time of year, as is Lake George 30 miles north.

It must be obvious to all of you that Saratoga is one of my favorite places on God’s earth and I look forward to going there this year, just as I look forward to visiting Del Mar for different reasons.

Where Saratoga is an historic treasure, Del Mar is the single most beautiful, most pleasant place to play the horses in America. One of those reasons continues to be the presence of semi-retired track announcer Trevor Denman. While Saratoga’s track announcer, Larry Collmus, is excellent in his own right, Denman is the best I’ve ever heard.

Built by the great singer Bing Crosby and his Hollywood friends in 1936, Del Mar was handsomely refurbished in the mid-1990’s to include more creature comforts and better access to its betting windows. Additional improvements have been implemented through the years, including the recent sharpening of Del Mar’s banked turns to bring it in line with Santa Anita’s dimensions.

As with Saratoga, visitors to Del Mar have many incredible pleasures to experience. Among them are the nearby Pacific Ocean with its free and easily accessible beaches and the dozens of excellent restaurants and nightclubs in town and nearby La Jolla. Good venues to entertain children also can be found to complete a family visit.

Significant similarities between Saratoga and Del Mar also exist. Both tracks provide wonderful racing for well-bred 2-year-olds and both have excellent turf racing programs. Of course, both offer many rich stakes, including the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 19 and the aforementioned $1.25 million Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 26.

To be frank, even though Del Mar tends to have a more stable turf racing program because it rarely rains in Southern California, I am worried about the entire SoCal racing program. That’s because Santa Anita was forced to cut many of its five day racing weeks to three and four days due to lack of entries, a problem that Del Mar’s racing office will have to work hard to avoid.

While I strongly urge all SoCal tracks to spend more time, energy and money recruiting stables to solve this problem, I urge all racing fans who never have been to Saratoga or Del Mar to take a trip this year to one or both. You will not forget the experience.