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Lights, camera, horses! Show at Saratoga goes on

An exercise rider works a horse at Saratoga

An exercise rider works a horse at Saratoga Race Course. The horse racing season opens on Friday. (July 22, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

The dreaded "what if?" was in the wind during the winter, when the unthinkable was being thought about. Could the New York Racing Association's financial crisis force it to cancel Saratoga's 142nd meeting?

No, not a summer of darkness! John Velazquez, a three-time riding champion at the Spa, spoke for casual racing fans, serious horseplayers and upstate business operators when asked about the possibility.

"Ah, it would be a tragedy," Velazquez said in mid-March. "I don't think that would ever happen. If they are really smart, they would never let it happen. It would be bad for everything - racing, the economy, the town. The government, the politicians, I don't think they will allow it."

Fortunately, they didn't, because in late May New York State approved a $25-million loan to bail out NYRA.

So Friday Saratoga Race Course will begin a 40-day stand (up from 36 last year) that will end Labor Day, Sept. 6.

The traditional opening-day feature, the Grade III Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, tops a 10-race card that drew 127 entries. As always, the 1 1/4-mile Travers for 3-year-olds Aug. 28 is the main event, with other prestigious stakes - the Coaching Club American Oaks, Jim Dandy, Whitney, Test, Sword Dancer, Alabama and Woodward - anchoring the other six weekends.

Yet amid the holiday atmosphere and frivolity are reminders that "The Summer Place to Be" has seen better times. A glance at the past performances in the Racing Form tells you that. Back when Saratoga lasted only 24 days, most of the cheaper horses stayed downstate, but its gradual expansion necessitated sacrificing quality for quantity.

It's been 128 years since the Spa ran for 40 days, and sometimes more is less. In recent years, some Saratoga weekday programs resembled Aqueduct's in February, with sunscreen and shorts replacing gloves and parkas.

Call it "Saratoga Lite." If you dislike gambling on New York-bred maidens, low-level claimers and crowded, inscrutable turf sprints, you'll be sitting out a lot of races. Yet compared to the historically weak Belmont Park meet that ended Sunday, the Spa still will seem like horse heaven.

"All eyes are on Saratoga," said Toronto-based Reade Baker, who will saddle the 3-year-old filly Biofuel in tomorrow's Coaching Club American Oaks. "You could win a Grade I anywhere else and not nearly as many people would notice."

Even though it's not what it used to be, Saratoga remains the destination for most of North America's best thoroughbreds, including top older horse Quality Road. Linda Rice returns to defend her training championship, a Saratoga first for a woman. Todd Pletcher, runner-up to Rice, will go for his seventh. Ramon Dominguez will try to extend his domination of the nation's deepest, most talented jockey colony.

As always, the crowds will be big and giddily enthusiastic, and the betting handle will surpass anywhere else. The atmosphere is unbeatable, with endless choices of restaurants and bars, even if the prices are more than a bit much. The party will go on, and the revelers won't stop to wonder whether it felt better in 1985.

Many horsemen say nothing is sweeter than a victory at Saratoga. Kentucky-based owner Ken Ramsey has won 16 meet titles at Churchill Downs, but to him even the home of the Twin Spires runs second behind the Spa. Ramsey also has won the most races the past two years at Saratoga.

"Well, I guess it's doubly special," Ramsey said while accepting the trophy on closing day last year. "I just love coming back to this winner's circle. Saratoga's my very favorite racetrack in the whole world, and I've been to 50 racetracks."

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