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Saratoga opens Friday -- and it doesn't get any better for racing fans

An exercise rider rides a horse during morning

An exercise rider rides a horse during morning workouts at Saratoga Race Course on Thursday, July 17, 2014, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Thoroughbred racing in America is a minority-interest sport that rarely creates a buzz except for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Only when a Triple Crown is on the line does it excite the mainstream media and public, and the enthusiasm disappears when the bid for immortality evaporates. Yet for six weeks each year, these sad truths are forgotten.

Saratoga always has been a happy place for the Sport of Kings, and today marks the 146th opening day for the summer place to be. From now through Labor Day, Sept. 1, the old track on Union Avenue will be a vacation destination packed with serious bettors, picnicking families and good vibes.

World-class horses, trainers and jockeys will compete for megabucks and prestige in 35 stakes, including 17 with Grade I status, for all ages on dirt, grass and over the jumps. From the 51/2-furlong Quick Call to the 23/8-mile New York Turf Writers' Steeplechase, there's a distance for any horse that can run. The centerpiece of the best extended race meeting on Earth is the $1.25 million, 11/4-mile Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds Aug. 23. The marquee event worth the most money is the $1.5 million Whitney on Aug. 2.

Cot Campbell, the 86-year-old founder and head of Dogwood Racing, accepted his first graded-stakes trophy at the Spa in 1979. Campbell and Todd Pletcher, Saratoga's 10-time champion trainer, are pointing the country's top-rated horse, Palace Malice, for the 11/8-mile Whitney. The colt is 4-for-4 as a 4-year-old, including the prestigious Met Mile on Belmont Day. Palace Malice thrilled Campbell last July by taking the Jim Dandy, Saratoga's Travers prep.

"This is what it's all about,'" the man from Aiken, South Carolina, told HRTV. "This is my town. Gosh, I love Saratoga. I love the tradition and how it started just after the Battle of Gettysburg."

That turning point of the Civil War ended July 3, 1863, and exactly a month later, Saratoga Race Course debuted. This year, an entertainment venue that began amid the backdrop of war will showcase a total love experience for one lucky couple. Not only can you hang out there with your significant other, but someone will get the chance to make a surprise marriage proposal in the hallowed winner's circle. That will take the term "horse lover" to a previously unknown zone, yet some will wonder if the public display of affection really will be a surprise. Cynicism thrives at the track.

The New York Racing Association is partnering with a jewelry manufacturer in an online contest whose winner will pop the big question. After being randomly selected, he/she will be notified Aug. 4, and the couple must be at the track for the magic moment Aug. 15. Perks include a $6,000 engagement ring and a party for 28 guests.

Of course, if the answer isn't yes, it will be the most brutal disqualification in racing history. Well, true love is a long shot, and even a day in horse heaven always involves risk.

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