Big History, Purses at Saratoga, Del Mar
The two biggest horse racing meets, Saratoga and Del Mar, are underway and players can enjoy big stakes at these historic venues.
Saratoga and Del Mar racetracks dominate the North American racing landscape, sucking all the oxygen, money, attention, head space and air space out of horseplayers and racing fans.
If its summer, it must be time for Saratoga and Del Mar. The bicoastal epicenters of horse racing from mid-July to Labor Day weekend, brought to you by the historic upstate New York track and the Southern California track made famous by Bing Crosby, who greeted the first fan to walk through the gates in 1937.
Old-money bluebloods like the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Phippses holding court on one coast. Hollywood elite like Crosby, Bob Hope and Desi Arnaz holding court on the other.
Saratoga and Del Mar are considered “boutique” meets. That’s a fancy term for “seen and be seen” – with all that entails.
The Saratoga meet opens July 14 and runs through Labor Day on September 5. Del Mar opens July 22 and runs through September 11.
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Saratoga or Del Mar?
The eternal question is where would you rather spend a summer day? The picturesque upstate New York village of Saratoga Springs, made famous by James Fenimore Cooper and 19th century Irish gangster turned casino owner turned politician John Morrissey, who used to run horse races at Saratoga during the Civil War and who now has a stakes race named after him?
Or would you rather spend a day on the Southern California coast north of San Diego, where the turf meets the surf and shakes hands with Old-School Hollywood. Del Mar was the former stomping grounds of not only Crosby, Hope and Arnaz, who lived not far from the track, but Betty Grable, Don Ameche, George Jessel, Ava Gardner, Mickey Rooney, and Jimmy Durante, who frequented the track so much they eventually named the turf course for him.
It’s a question with no wrong answer. Today, Saratoga and Del Mar offer some of the best racing in the country. Saratoga’s 40-day summer meet features 77 stakes worth $22.6 million in total purses. Del Mar’s 31-day meet features 34 stakes worth $8,275,000. There are more races at Saratoga, which runs Wednesday-Sunday as opposed to Del Mar’s primary schedule of Thursday-Sunday.
Saratoga offers up 19 Grade 1s, including five on Travers Stakes Day, August 27. Del Mar offers only six over its entire meet. But three of the last four years, Del Mar made up for that with larger average field sizes. Some of the deepest racing fields in the country run out of Del Mar.
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Purse Spikes for Saratoga, Del Mar
Both tracks jacked up their purses in 2022. Saratoga boosted its by 5.1%. Del Mar upped its by 11%.
You get the idea.
But wait. There’s more. Every top trainer finds their way to either track at some point during their respective meets. You’ll see five-time Spa training champion Chad Brown, 14-time champion Todd Pletcher, Kenny McPeek, Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox making frequent trips to the winner’s circle at Saratoga. Brown owns three of the last four Saratoga titles and between him and Pletcher, own 19 training crowns.
Meanwhile, nearly 2,500 miles away, Bob Baffert, John Sadler, Doug O’Neill, Richard Mandella, John Shirreffs, Phil D’Amato, and Peter Miller will be front and center. Miller’s horses take to Del Mar’s course. He’s won nine Del Mar training crowns.
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Big Stakes Races for Saratoga, Del Mar
Saratoga has the August 6, Grade 1 Whitney Stakes as its flagship race for older horses. Expect to see Life Is Good and Olympiad finally tangling. Del Mar answers with the September 3 Grade 1 Pacific Classic, which offers up the incandescent Flightline, along with Hot Rod Charlie. Both look good on any horse’s CV and both send their winners to the flagship race on the Breeders’ Cup slate: the $6 million Classic.
Saratoga has the distinct edge for 3-year-olds with its marquee race: the $1.25 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes. The August 27 “Midsummer Classic” is considered a race just below the Triple Crown in terms of prestige and prominence.
This is the race every trainer angled their Triple Crown alumni toward. Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, Preakness winner Early Voting, Epicenter, the runner-up in both of those races, Zandon, the third place Derby horse, and undefeated Jack Christopher, who skipped the Triple Crown trail with an injury, but returned with decisive wins in the Pat Day Mile and the Woody Stephens.
But Del Mar answers with two of the best juvenile races in the country. The Del Mar Debutante for the 2-year-old fillies and the Del Mar Futurity for the boys. Both Grade 1 races, held on closing day September11, go a long way anointing the eventual Eclipse Award winner for that age group.
And both tracks show off the distaff class. Saratoga has the Test Stakes, American Oaks and Alabama – all Grade 1s – for 3-year-old fillies. It also has the Ballerina and the Sword Dancer, both on turf. Del Mar rolls out the Del Mar Oaks and the Clement L. Hirsch: both Grade 1s.
Again, you get the idea. Just follow the sun East to West and you’re treated to a racing bacchanalia every weekend between now and September 11.
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