This week we check in on two extremes of the horse racing world — prestigious Saratoga Race Course and the White Pine Races in Ely, one of two live racing meets in Nevada.
On the surface, there is no comparison.
Saturday’s Saratoga headliner, the $1 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes, will pit Wonder Gadot (pronounced “gah-DAHT”) against many of the nation’s top 3-year-old colts, including Good Magic, Catholic Boy and Gronkowski, as she tries to become the first filly to win the prestigious Midsummer Derby in more than a century. And the six other graded stakes races on the undercard also drew full fields of some of the best horses in North America.
The 20 races run over three days at the White Pine Races, on the other hand, averaged purses of just over $3,500 and featured horses that are generally either slow or have left their best days behind them.
Nonetheless, my first visit to the fairgrounds in Ely reminded me about what I love about horse racing at its most basic.
I met some serious and knowledgeable trainers — Chet Child, Mark Hanson and Mike Monson — all of whom noted that there is a camaraderie among those who compete at the fairs that you don’t find in racing’s big leagues.
“The love of racing is still alive here,” is how Child, 52, put it. “We do it for a photo and a ribbon.”
At the same time, the fair circuit purses help keep afloat these small operations, many of which break horses for other outfits in addition to conditioning runners for their breeder clients.
“This is my sole source of income, so I have to do well,” said Hanson, 28, who races out of Pocatello, Idaho.
I also spoke with journeymen jockeys Jose Figueroa, 31, who suffered a broken arm in a hard spill Friday and will miss at least six weeks of action, and Dallas Erickson, 41, who drove 5½ hours from Malta, Idaho, to replace him aboard one mount for Monson on Sunday. The horse, Mick Lovin, finished third in the AQHA Bonus Challenge Stakes for quarter horses, adding a bit of gas money to the roughly $60 fee that jockeys receive for each race they ride.
Then, I bent a knee before fair racing royalty.
Generations, a 9-year-old gelding, has won 25 straight races, according to his co-owner, Robin Dunn. I could only document 19 through Equibase and American Quarter Horse Association records. Dunn said the other wins occurred at “unrecognized” racetracks in places such as Beaver, Utah, and Blackfoot, Idaho, which is why they’re not in the record books. According to his research, Generations has the second-longest active win streak in the world, trailing only Australian sensation Winx, who recently won her 26th in a row.
It’s a great example of how the lower-level fair tracks enable a horse such as Generations, who couldn’t cut it in Southern California early in his career, to have a long livelihood in the lower rungs of the sport.
“He gets treated like a king,” said Dunn, who claimed the earner of almost $100,000 with partner Jim Hanson for $5,000 out of a race at Los Alamitos. “Fans love him, and everybody knows him.”
Another thing about live racing is that it mints new fans in ways that TV and simulcasting don’t. I lost count of the number of young kids racing around the apron and lining up at the paddock to learn the fine points of equine body language from their parents.
So as you admire the best the sport has to offer this weekend, spare a thought for the people and horses who work far from tracks such as Saratoga and Del Mar. And think about supporting local racing in the year ahead with your presence.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers tackled the two $1 million marquee races on Saturday’s Saratoga card: the Sword Dancer Stakes and Travers Stakes.
In the Sword Dancer, a 1½-mile race on the inner turf course for 3-year-olds and up, the crowd ’cappers give a narrow edge to 7-2 morning line favorite Sadler’s Joy over Spring Quality (4-1) and Channel Maker (5-1).
I’ll see if I can beat the deserving favorite with the steadily improving Funtastic (9-2), using Sadler’s Joy and Bigger Picture (8-1) to round out my top three.
In the Travers, run at 1¼ miles on the main track, the crew is deadlocked between the two Chad Brown stablemates, 2-1 morning line favorite Good Magic and Gronkowski (4-1), with Wonder Gadot (5-1) holding down the third spot.
In this week’s featured comment, veteran handicapper Patrick Morrison makes this observation about the hazards of betting races overflowing with quality contenders.
“I don’t think races like this can be successfully handicapped with any degree of success by me for sure and maybe by anyone,” he wrote. “I will enjoy watching them and keep my money in my pocket.”
Sound advice that I’d normally follow. But if my top pick, Catholic Boy, goes off anywhere near his 8-1 morning line, I might just throw caution to the wind. I like Wonder Gadot to nose out Good Magic for second.
Elko County Fair schedule
The Elko County Fair will have six days of racing this weekend and next in Elko. Racing will be offered Saturday and Sunday this weekend and Aug. 31 to Sept. 3. Post time is 1 p.m. each day.
Ellis Starr’s Travers Stakes analysis
Catholic Boy has done little wrong in his career to date, winning five of eight races. The most recent of those wins came last month in the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on the turf, in which Catholic Boy earned a career-best 108 Equibase Speed Figure. Although his last two wins came on grass, any concern about his ability to win on dirt are put to rest because he proved himself at the top level last December when dominating in the Remsen Stakes by five lengths. Watching the video replay of the Belmont Derby, I believe Catholic Boy enjoys letting another horse pass him, all the while knowing he has the ability to fight back and win and that is exactly the kind of “Alpha” quality we should see in the Travers, making him the one to beat.
Wonder Gadot is another who has proven capable of winning at the classic mile and one-quarter distance of the Travers, having done so when winning the Queen’s Plate Stakes (against males) in June with a 102 figure before improving to the same 108 figure Catholic Boy earned recently when winning the Prince of Wales Stakes with the greatest of easy by five and three-quarter lengths. Wonder Gadot may be capable of running even better in the Travers, as her best career effort came in May when second in the Kentucky Oaks, beaten a half-length at the finish with a 113 figure. Although she has never run at Saratoga, Wonder Gadot put in a spectacular workout over the track last week, the best of 67 at the distance of 4 furlongs . Now having finished first or second in five straight races, this filly has an opportunity to beat males for the third straight time and stamp herself as the top three year old in North America in training now that Justify is retired.
Good Magic won the Haskell Invitational Stakes rather handily by three lengths last month and in doing so tied his best career figure, 109, also earned last fall when winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Except for finishing second behind Justify in the Kentucky Derby and fourth behind the Triple Crown winner in the Preakness, Good Magic has had a stellar campaign this year, including winning the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April. Jockey Jose Ortiz has ridden Good Magic in every start since the second race of his career last October and the colt has proven capable of running well at the distance of the Travers, so there is little doubt he can win in this situation. On the other hand, eight of the other 10 entrants in the Travers have earned 107 to 110 figures in top races so Good Magic will have his work cut out for him in trying to prove the likely public favoritism at the betting windows correct.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.