SARATOGA SPRINGS -- A cool breeze blew across the backstretch on an overcast morning as horses worked out on the Oklahoma track. Todd Pletcher did a television interview before he and owner Mike Repole watched Repole's 2-year-old colt Onetwentyeight train on the main track. It looked like a typical day in horse heaven, except that it wasn't, because five hours later, Saratoga Race Course's 144th season would begin.
Trainer Gary Sciacca chauffeured local resident Bill Parcells, a Daily Racing Form tucked under his left arm, around the barns in a golf cart. Parcells said he no longer owns thoroughbreds, but the 70-year-old football guy retains his passion for four-legged athletes. "I'm planning to be here for about half of the 40 days,'' Parcells said. "I'm looking forward to it.''
So was the crowd of 25,676, many of whom joined race caller Tom Durkin in shouting "And they're off at Saratoga!" as the gates opened for Friday's first race. A field of nine broke from in front of the old wooden grandstand for a mile tour of the inner turf course, and the world's best extended race meeting started with a 13-1 upset by Nine O Wonderful and jockey Rosie Napravnik.
From now through Labor Day, North America's top horses, trainers and riders will compete for record money (daily average of about $930,000) thanks partly to Aqueduct's casino revenue. The sixth race, a $20,000 claimer, was worth $40,000. No wonder the Spa is where the elite meet.
There were some annoying glitches, however. Besides technical difficulties with Durkin's audio and the TV monitors, from 3 p.m. on, the toilets and most faucets were out of order throughout the building.
The first stakes went to front-running Pacific Ocean and jockey Joel Rosario, who took the Grade III, 7-furlong James Marvin by 1¾ lengths over Golddigger's Boy in 1:22.53. Defending champion and 4-5 favorite Jackson Bend was fourth for Napravnik, and Repole's Caixa Eletronica ran fifth.
Pacific Ocean ($14.20) is trained by Rick Dutrow, whose 10-year suspension by the State Racing and Wagering Board for repeated drug violations was upheld Thursday by a midlevel New York appellate court. Dutrow remains active because he intends to appeal to the court of appeals, the state's highest court.
Dutrow's older brother, Anthony Dutrow, trains So Many Ways, who won the Grade III Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, by 1½ lengths over Can't Explain. So Many Ways paid $7.60 after running 6 furlongs in 1:11.51 for Javier Castellano.
"I do think this filly will go on,'' said Anthony Dutrow, who also won the day's final race. "Her pedigree says she'll stretch out.''
So will the meeting, for 39 more riveting days.
Union Rags retired
Russell Jones, racing manager for owner Phyllis Wyeth, announced that Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags has been retired because of a tendon problem in his left foreleg. Last week, the injury forced trainer Michael Matz to withdraw him from the July 20 Haskell at Monmouth Park.
Around the track
Napravnik, Rosario, Castellano, Ramon Dominguez and Junior Alvarado each rode two winners . . . Saturday's feature is the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, headed by Mother Goose winner Zo Impressive. There will be a Pick Six carry-over of $60,316.