For 150 years, it's been a summer destination for lovers of thoroughbreds and good times, and Friday the party resumes at Saratoga. The world's best extended race meeting starts a 6½-week stand, 40 days of pari-mutuel action featuring North America's best runners, the stars of tomorrow and the nation's biggest purses.
This year's Triple Crown race winners -- Orb (Kentucky Derby), Oxbow (Preakness) and Palace Malice (Belmont Stakes) -- debuted at the Spa last year, and they're all being pointed for the Midsummer Derby, the $1-million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24. One of 2014's classic winners may get dirt in his face for the first time in a baby race on a Monday.
The best 2-year-olds come out at Saratoga, and it seems as if Todd Pletcher trains most of them. His seemingly endless supply of juveniles had a record 23 victories there last summer as he took his third consecutive meet title and ninth overall. He'll saddle Yes Liz and Elena Strikes in the traditional opening-day feature, the Grade III Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
"We had an unbelievable meet with 2-year-olds last year,'" Pletcher said. "We don't anticipate being as successful with them, but we're optimistic."
He said about 40 of his 100 or so horses upstate are 2, and only Saratoga's outrageous hotel rates are more of a certainty than seeing Pletcher scoring with first-time starters.
Pletcher lives in Garden City, but he owns Saratoga. Since 2010, so has fellow Nassau County resident Mike Repole. "Winning three Saratoga owners' titles in a row is an amazing accomplishment I am very proud of,'" Repole said.
Ken Ramsey, fresh off record-breaking meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, ruled the Spa in 2008 and 2009, and the colorful Kentuckian wants another trophy.
"Repole's reign is getting ready to come to a screeching halt," said Ramsey, 77, who also is among the few owners who can compete with Repole in the uncensored quotes department.
"I like and respect Ken Ramsey a lot, and I think he and his friendly trash talking are great for the sport," Repole said. "He is an Eclipse Award winner who runs a great racing operation."
Still, Repole couldn't resist firing back. "When I lose once to someone, I get upset, twice is worse and three times I can't sleep. I feel bad that Mr. Ramsey has not slept in a year."
Repole isn't expecting four straight. "I plan on being competitive," he said, "but I don't think my stable is in position to win the owners' title. My focus is to win the Alabama and Travers.''
Whether you're a multimillionaire entrepreneur like Repole and Ramsey or a $2 bettor, nothing satisfies like victory at Saratoga. Horseplayers start anticipating it as soon as the Belmont is declared official, and Christmas in July is finally here again.
"I think the fact it's been successful for 150 years tells everything," Pletcher said. "Not many things last that long. To maintain such a high level of racing for that length of time is amazing."