With all the cancellations, suspensions and closures, it should come as no surprise that both the Del Mar and Saratoga race meets are in jeopardy.
No one has said anything definitive yet about canceling or postponing the scheduled meets at the iconic venues, which have been conducting superlative summer racing for 240 years between them. But it’s no exaggeration to say that both are on thin ice as the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold sway.
Joe Harper, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club president and CEO, said in an interview this week with a San Diego news station KUSI that “everything’s up in the air” as far as the Del Mar meet scheduled to begin on July 18 and run through Sept. 7.
The interview came after local officials announced the cancellation of the San Diego County Fair, which was to have run from June 5-July 5 at the fairgrounds that also houses the racetrack.
Harper did hold out a ray of hope that Del Mar could run races without fans in the stands, as tracks like Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park have successfully been doing for more than a month now.
As for Saratoga, the bad omen was a delay announced last week in the anticipated April 15 opening of the Oklahoma training facility. The statement stressed that the delay did not mean the start of the Saratoga meet scheduled for July 16-Sept. 7 would be delayed.
That remained the state of play on Thursday, even as the New York Racing Association was announcing that the start of the scheduled Belmont Park spring-summer meet would be delayed for an unknown period and that the date of the Belmont Stakes would likely be shifted from June 6 to later in the year.
As for Saratoga, all NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna would say Thursday is that the meeting remains on the schedule.
“While we are monitoring the current conditions and consulting with the New York State Department of Health, we are planning for Saratoga to open as scheduled and run in its entirety across the 40-day meet,” he said. “We are working in earnest each and every day to prepare for the 2020 Saratoga season.”
The loss of either of these summer gems would be big blow to the states and horseplayers everywhere. Here’s hoping they can find a way to navigate these difficult times and put on the fantastic racing they are renowned for.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers return to Oaklawn Park, which is benefiting from the closure of many of the tracks it would normally be competing with and drawing full fields for its races.
This week’s quarry: Saturday’s $350,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at 6 furlongs for 3-year-olds and up and the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap, a 1 1/6th mile test for fillies and mares 4 and up.
In the former, the crew is solidly behind 5-2 morning line favorite Whitmore, who enters this race off a sharp score in the Hot Spring Stakes at Oaklawn last month. They have Flagstaff (7-2) and Bobby’s Wicked One (3-1) to place and show.
Whitmore is the deserved chalk, but I’ll try and beat him with Hidden Scroll (4-1). Normally you’d be crazy to back a horse jumping up from a lower-level allowance race into a graded stakes, but with Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott calling the shots I’m willing to make an exception. I’ll use Whitmore to place and Bobby’s Wicked One to show.
In the Apple Blosssom, the crowd ‘cappers are edging out on a limb and backing speedy 4-year-old Serengeti Empress, the 4-1 third choice on the morning line, over Ce Ce (7-2) and Come Dancing (3-1) for second and third.
I think my chums are again on the right track with all three of those runners, but I see an abundance of speed signed up for this and will take a shot with an off-the-pace runner, the aptly named Lady Apple (15-1), who struggled over a sloppy racetrack in her last but beat Serengeti Empress two races back. I’ll use Serengeti Empress to place and Awe Emma (20-1) to show.
Ellis Starr’s Apple Blossom Handicap analysis
Horologist gets slight preference as my top win contender in this year’s Apple Blossom Handicap. She won just one of five dirt sprints to start her career then last spring when tried at a mile she won to kick off four victories in succession. The last of those four came in the Monmouth Oaks in August with a then career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure. Following that, Horologist only managed third, ninth and fifth place finishes but may have turned a corner last month with a big effort in the Nellie Morse Stakes. In that race, Horologist moved up from third after a half-mile and battled head-and-head with the eventual winner. Although beaten a nose on the wire, Horologist was 9 1/2 lengths in front of the next horse. With that effort, Horologist earned a new career-best 110 figure, which is the highest in the field and one point better than the 109 figure Ce Ce earned in the Beholder Mile. Considering Horologist is making her second start off two months away and her stalking style may put her right behind potential early leaders Serengeti Empress and Cookie Dough, she may get the lead in the stretch and hang on for the win in this very tough and talented field.
If not for having drawn the outside 14 post in the Apple Blossom, Ce Ce might be my top choice. As it is, I think she has just about as much probability to succeed as Horologist because she’s a lightly raced 4-year-old and has won two in a row since returning from an eight month layoff in February. Following a sprint prep to begin her 2020 campaign, Ce Ce stretched out to a mile for the Beholder Mile Stakes last month in California and dominated by 3 1/4 lengths with a 109 speed figure. Victor Espinoza has been the only jockey she’s had in five races, including three wins, and rides her again. Given the pattern of layoff-sprint-route-route strongly suggests an even better effort than in the Beholder Mile, and with a good stalking style which is benefited by the early speed of Serengeti Empress, Cookie Dough and perhaps others, Ce Ce could win her second grade 1 stakes in a row.
Street Band doesn’t appear nearly as probable to win as the top two contenders, but she’s not entirely improbable either. Although Street Band has won five of 15 races, she’s been inconsistent as she’s never run two good races in a row, always regressing following wins with fifth, fourth, seventh, third and eighth place efforts. That historical record might actually bode well for her chances in the Apple Blossom as she has finished third and fourth in her two starts this year. Ignoring the fourth place effort on a sloppy track last month in the Azeri Stakes, Street Band may have a say in the outcome of this race if she improves off her third place effort prior to that in the Houston Ladies Classic when beaten just a neck for second by Serengeti Empress with a 103 figure. When winning the Cotillion Stakes last September, Street Band earned a career best 114 figure so if able to run back to that effort she would be capable of winning the Apple Blossom.
Queen Nekia is an interesting long shot in the Apple Blossom, particularly when considering any exacta and/or trifecta bets as I think the potential for a faster than average early pace benefits her late running style. Claimed for $25,000 out of a winning effort in January with a 100 figure, Queen Nekia improved to a competitive 108 figure when third, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the Royal Delta Stakes last month. In that race, Queen Nekia brushed the gate at the start then was steadied in traffic in the first turn. Then, moving up from fourth to within a half-length of the leader with an eighth of a mile to go, Queen Nekia battled fiercely to miss second by a nose on the wire. Likely to be in fifth or sixth in the early stages of the Apple Blossom, if the pace is much faster than average Queen Nekia might sneak her way into the top three in the late stages.
Cookie Dough and Serengeti Empress are two horses I am on the fence about in terms of being win contenders. Cookie Dough earned a 109 figure winning the Royal Delta Stakes last month with a great trip stalking the early leader, but her 10 post may dictate a strategy to go for the lead and the rail from the start. She could get second in the early stages behind the more likely early leader Serengeti Empress, but the cost of doing so may make her vulnerable to the stalkers and closers in the late stages. Similarly, Serengeti Empress, who has only won when on the lead from the start in her route races, seems committed to go as hard as she can to get to the front early. Having to clear the 10 horses inside of her in the gate while saving enough for the late stages in a 14 horse field is likely to be a bit more problematic then it was last month when having to clear six other horses in the Azeri Stakes. That effort earned Serengeti Empress a career-best 106 figure and that may be another obstacle in winning the Apple Blossom as that figure needs to be improved upon to get to the 110 and 109 figures Horologist and Ce Ce earned, respectively, in their most recent starts.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Awe Emma (94), Coldwater (90), Come Dancing (112), Lady Apple (104), Ollies Candy (103), Point of Honor (98) and Saracosa (99).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.