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Opening of Saratoga, Del Mar lift spirits after Santa Anita deaths

We can’t pretend that all is well in the racing world, but let’s at least stop for a second and appreciate that Saratoga is off and running — and moving quite well at the age of 156 — and that Del Mar’s summer meet is just around the corner.

The Spa opened its 40-day meet Thursday and will race five days most weeks through Sept. 2. The historic and popular racetrack in upstate New York will offer a steady diet of stakes, including the $150,000 Sanford Stakes for 2-year-olds and the $500,000 Diana Stakes for turf fillies and mares on Saturday.

Those races attracted relatively short fields, but other highlights during the meet, such as the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 27; the $1 million Whitney on Aug. 3; the $600,000 Alabama Stakes on Aug. 17; the 150th running of $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24; and the $350,000 Hopeful Stakes on closing day, should offer plenty of betting opportunities.

The track also will feature the middle legs of the New York Racing Association’s new Turf Tiara and Turf Trinity series, with the inaugural runnings of the $750,000 Saratoga Oaks on Aug. 2 and the $1 million Saratoga Derby on Aug. 4.

But the best thing about Saratoga, in my opinion, is the day-in, day-out quality of the undercard races, including maiden special weight races that routinely launch the careers of future stars and allowance and high-level claiming races that usually draw full or overflow fields.

It also will be easier for fans to keep tabs on the races this year with the expanded reach of NYRA’s “Saratoga Live” show, which will be carried most days on Fox Sports 2. It also will be available through regional sports networks including MSG+, FOX Sports Prime Ticket, Fox Sports San Diego and Altitude Sports.

Del Mar, meanwhile, will begin its 36-day meet next Wednesday and also intends to race five days a week through Labor Day on Sept. 2.

The track where the turf meets the surf also will serve up a solid menu stakes racing, including the $300,000 Bing Crosby Stakes on July 27; the $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on July 28; and the $1 million Pacific Classic, the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks and the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap, all on Aug. 17; the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante on Aug. 31; and the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 2.

While the vibe at the track will be chill, the pall that settled over horse racing in the Golden State as a result of the deaths of 30 horses during the recently concluded Santa Anita Park meet will not be far away.

One sign of the tense atmosphere is the fact that track management is still debating whether to grant stalls to Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer or allow him to enter horses at the track with just days to go before the gates spring open for the first race. The debate comes after The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita, unceremoniously banned the trainer after one of his horses died on the final weekend of racing. It was the fourth Hollendorfer runner to die during the meet.

#RJhorseracing feature races

The #RJhorseracing handicapping corps naturally wanted to sample the Saratoga fare this weekend, but with the short fields in the stakes races we took on a seven-furlong first level allowance race for 3-year-olds and up, which will be race 10 on Saturday’s card. Our second challenge is the $500,000 Indiana Derby, a 1 1/16th-mile test for 3-year-olds at Indiana Grand.

In the former, the crowd ’cappers are solidly behind the Chad Brown-trained 6-5 morning line favorite Payne, with Uber Kirk (5-1) narrowly edging out Ruler of the Nile (15-1) for second.

Payne is clearly the one to beat, but I’ll try with El Asesino (10-1), who could get brave on the lead. Payne’s my second pick, with Uber Kirk third.

In the Indiana Derby, the crew is sticking with the chalk, figuring Mr. Money (6-5) can overcome his tough outside post to continue his winning ways. They like Math Wizard (9-2) and Alwaysmining (8-1) to fill out the minor placings.

“Bet the farm on Mr. Money!” exhorted crowd ’capper Jerry Van Valkenberg.

My “farm” is approximately 4 square feet, but I’ll toss it all on Long Range Toddy (12-1), who beat tougher this spring and should move forward in his second start off a layoff. Mr. Money is my place horse with Chess Chief (12-1) to show.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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