Every July, a 3 1/2-hour drive sends New York racing into another world. It's only 191 miles from Belmont Park to the old track on Union Avenue, yet the Saratoga vibe makes it feel like time travel.
The Spa opens Friday for the 144th time and runs through Labor Day, a 6 1/2-week celebration of the thoroughbred and summer fun. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's looming restructuring of the New York Racing Association's board of directors will create major changes, but the fans won't let it spoil the party.
Since 1998, when he earned his first of eight training titles there, Saratoga Race Course has been Todd Pletcher's happy place. "It's the atmosphere, the history, the tradition . . . and actually people in the stands,'' Pletcher said. "I think for everyone Saratoga is a favorite meet. You want to win wherever you are, but at Saratoga it's extra special.''
Owner Mike Repole hung out at Aqueduct and Belmont while growing up in Queens but never made it to Saratoga until his late 20s. "I compare the feeling to the first time I went to Fenway Park,'' Repole said Tuesday by telephone. "It was like going to the museum of racing.
"For six weeks everybody in town is talking about racing, and people from all over the country are there. It's such a very different experience. There's nothing like it.''
Nobody has done better there recently than Pletcher, Repole and jockey John Velazquez, frequent collaborators who led the standings the past two years. Velazquez, who broke his collarbone June 16, began working out horses Monday, and Pletcher said Johnny V. is targeting Wednesday for his return. Pletcher and Repole will team up Friday with Caixa Eletronica in the Grade III, 7-furlong James Marvin Stakes. One race later, Pletcher will saddle Can't Explain in the Grade III, 6-furlong Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
Since Pletcher claimed Caixa Eletronica for Repole for $62,500 in March 2011, the 7-year-old has gone 6-for-14 and earned $1.06 million. This spring he won the $1 million Charles Town Classic and the True North Handicap at Belmont.
"He's definitely my favorite horse, and I think he's become a lot of people's favorite horse,'' Repole said. "He's a throwback to the 1960s and '70s, and being able to win graded stakes at 6 furlongs and a mile and an eighth in the same year is pretty impressive.''
Pletcher also is a big fan of Caixa Eletronica. "He's a real barn favorite,'' he said. "He's ultraconsistent, the type of horse who gives you his best at every track and every distance. ''
Last year the obscurely bred son of Arromanches did his best Forego impression at Saratoga, carrying 131 pounds to win a starter handicap. That game effort helped Repole edge fellow Long Islander Michael Dubb by one win in the owners' race.
"This is the one meet I focus on,'' Repole said. "Anything less than winning it again would be a disappointment.''