Can you feel it? In less than 100 hours from when you read this, they'll be streaming through the gates at Saratoga, lining up for that homemade ice cream and waiting for the old bell to ring before the post parade for the first race of the 2002 meet. And they will clog the walking ring and the apron and the grandstand, standing row after row in front of the mutuel windows, all of them energized by the enthusiasm and hope that only a brand-new meet can bring.
Plenty will bet on the familiar, the names they know from downstate, in the city, the everyday trainers and horses who can grind it out as needed, here a race, there a race a couple of weeks later. But will they be disappointed?
Like many meets that are short, special and highly anticipated, Saratoga attracts more than its share of competitors pointing specifically for the coming six weeks. After all, what greater prize is there than Saratoga's riding or training title, or multiple stakes wins at the meet, when the whole racing world is watching?
Outside of the Triple Crown races or Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship events, not many. Who'll be gunning from the get-go? you ask. How about Christophe Clement, who always seems to have a handful of layoff winners strike on turf during the first couple weeks of the stand? The prices aren't super-snazzy, but the m.o. is there. Speaking of turf, Leo O'Brien is guaranteed to have more than a few scores on the Spa's sod -- look out for his horses who have prepped a few times at Belmont coming into the meet. And last year, Charles Simon made a favorable impression on local lawn, and he's one guy you still might be able to snag at a juicy price.
In terms of two-year-olds, Asmussen, Bond, Lukas and Mott were the crucial training quartet from a year ago. Given their year-in, year-out overall consistency, it's probably not a bad idea at all to expect them to shine with their juveniles again this time. Asmussen will do well with experienced youngsters already removed from the maiden ranks. Bond is the opposite, debuting many talented babies who can go long or short, dirt or turf, always a plus with Prado up. Lukas will take more than a few straight-maiden races, but with him, it's better to make sure they've had at least one race under their belt. And Mott, well, he's got to be seriously considered with any of his first- or second-timers -- and would you believe his two-year-olds paid better than those of any of the other three above-mentioned trainers? You could look it up.
Last year, the main track was a total speedway. All the sprint distances favored up-close speed through the opening-half-mile; indeed, many opening-quarter-mile leaders and death-duelers made it safely all the way to the wire. Who knows what may happen here this year, but the trend is toward early speed, baby. Even more so when the raindrops begin to fall. Practical pointer might be to give the benefit of the doubt to Midwestern shippers who might have come from less-early-speed-favoring tracks and now get to rattle their hooves at the Spa -- they just might last the whole way 'round. And like everywhere else, if you promote the best handful of final-furlong ralliers over the Saratoga turf, you'll be in good shape.
The tradition is at the East Coast spa, but the youth rock out West.
The loser lineup of racetrack bands at Gulfstream (REO Speedwagon, Pat Benetar?) seems all the more laughable upon reviewing the schedule of acts set to perform at Del Mar this summer. Sonic Youth, with the elite and patrician Thurston Moore as frontman, will make an appearance. You might remember them for their racetrack-inspired exercise in crunchy-guitar dissonance called "Bull Inthe Heather," where doll-like bassist Kim Gordon wailed out with the clapper, "I'm betting on the bull in the heather," as the band sat in the Santa Anita parking lot in scenes from the accompanying video. Maybe they actually had the horse at big odds when he won the 1993 Florida Derby.
If that's too erudite, not to worry. The great late-century musical group Cracker, headed by David Lowry, the guy who was the genius behind Camper Van Beethoven ("Take the Skinheads Bowling, Take Them Bowling!"), is also coming to North County, and if you're lucky, you'll hear their runaway all-time hit, "Happy Birthday to Me," with its unforgettable lament: "Sometimes, I wish I were Catholic, I don't know why."
It's mass appeal for anyone who attended a decent liberal-arts program sometime during the late 1980s or early-'90s. And the younger kids in the stands will have to be impressed that art-damaged men and women can actually rock out, too, and that it's not all about overtly wearing your pain on your sleeve or broadcasting how painful childhood was.
OK, so much for the Week in Rock. How about the next seven weeks of Southern California racing? That's more like it.
Del Mar is perhaps the least early-speed-favoring of the three SoCal tracks. And coming off a complete frontrunners' paradise at Hollywood, the reversal in winning running-styles could be radical. It's likely the final furlong in Del Mar dirt sprints will be tons more compelling and telling than their Hollypark counterparts.
Which means the prices could be juicy. The early-speed monsters who simply seized the lead at Hollywood and coasted to the wire might have their hooves full down at ol' Del Mar. Not even taking a plane, train or car might be enough to prevent them from getting late at the finish. So mark them down a little, and give a little more credit than you have recently to the closers, who just might be able to turn the tables over the fairer Del Mar strip.
On turf, Del Mar plays late, too, more like Santa Anita than Hollywood, and that translates to plenty of great late-race heroics from the winners.
Trainer-wise, you know Bill Spawr will be pointing for the meet, as ever, but also look out for John Sadler, who scored with plenty of comebackers during Del Mar 2001. As well, you might expect rumblings from Nick Hines.
Two-year-olds at Del Mar are always fun to watch, especially if you're looking at a future Point Given or Officer or something of that ilk. Of course, Baffert is your man in that regard. But it won't hurt to try for more-exciting mutuels with guys like Bombin' Barry Abrams and Michael (Mike) Machowsky.
We continue to wish you the very best in your handicapping and wagering, but especially at both these premier meets. Mainly because you're going to be seeing a lot of them until Labor Day. And always remember: Knowledge is King, Lady Luck is Queen...and the Joker's Wild!
Now, young friends, what would Del Mar and Saratoga be without a little good-natured but at the same time lucrative competition in the arena we call the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest?
So just for these outstanding summertime meets, we have constructed two fun horse-picking exercises, and three ways for you to win something more substantial than the copper.
It's called Del Matoga 2002, and you have a week to prepare for the first round. For all the details, click on our Contest Page now. You'll be glad you did.
And for this, we also wish you the very best -- and then some.
This week, Fast Capper 2002 rests up a little in advance of Saratoga and Del Mar, presenting its outlook on 10 stakes races (five of them Graded) covering five tracks. The following probability-estimates work best on dry, fast tracks and solid, firm turf courses. Please adjust accordingly for inclement weather or raceday scratches or both.
As always, best wishes for a prosperous weekend.
Look for two new books to hit the Handicapping Store next week. Watch this space seven days from now for more details.
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