Cup of Coffee – Positively Saratoga

- -

Angel Penna, Tom Bush and Tom Bellhouse take the keys to their golfcarts, Penna nearly backs over Kip from Satch Sales as he learns the difference between forward and reverse. Tom Voss wins two races on Sunday and Mimi Voss orders flowers and ferns for their shedrow. Melissa at Rick Violette’s rakes the straw covering off the fledgling grass outside their overflow barn. Rusty Arnold stands outside his new digs on the Oklahoma side, a long way from the far turn of day’s gone past. The Chief’s horses still pull just like they have for the past 50 years. Eleven cases of Diet Mountain Dew await Mark Hennig in his tackroom. Nancy the Paper Lady fights for her cut and rallies her allies to the cause. Little Jose Santos has grown to Big Jose Santos, “I guess I have to be a jump jockey,” he says to his Hall of Fame dad. Brook Ledge, Sallee, Ralph Smith, Ebert . . . they’re the ones making money a day before the 141st Saratoga racemeet.

 Volume 9. Number 1.

Ready or not (us and you), here we come.

It’s Saratoga, time to put away the attitude, pension the stress, ignore the worry, run up the credit card and hit the ATM. Sleep in September. Pay the bills in October.

The Saratoga Special staff hit the backside Monday morning; listening and collecting predictions, quotes, stories, quips and gripes.

Here’s our prediction – this will be the best Saratoga meet, certainly, since we started this paper in 2001. The New York Racing Association has shed its bankruptcy and owns the franchise for the next 25 years. Fasig-Tipton has shifted to offense, instead of simply “blocking and tackling” and will pump in an international crowd for its Festival of Racing and its stellar catalogue. The stock market has climbed past 9,000. Like him or not (yes, I know where you stand, Hennig family), we have a president for the next four years. And it can’t rain as much as last summer, can it?

Is that stability I feel? For Thoroughbred racing in the year 2009, that’s as good as we’re going to get.

Funny, though, a year ago we still thought life was OK. The dirt hit the gap in September and kept piling up. It was a long winter. I sell horses and ads for a living, about the first two things to go in a bad economy. Now it’s cleared enough to make Saratoga the August Place to be again. At least, that’s our prediction. And yes, we’ve been accused of being too positive. We’ll take the criticism. Like a horse being too fast or a sandwich too big, a racing paper being too positive is OK with us. Hey, you’ve got to be different, right?

Fourteen Grade I stakes dot the calendar and as always the Travers should highlight them all. Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont winner Summer Bird have tentatively put their names on stakes coordinator Andrew Byrnes’ book while Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra trains here, and might run here, once she gets done with her date in the Haskell on Sunday. Champion Forever Together is here.

As always, trainers from far and wide descend on Saratoga trying to see if they can play at the top. Newcomers (to Saratoga) Merrill Scherer, Michelle Nihei are here and others like Mike Maker, Eddie Kenneally, Mike Trombetta and Dave Duggan try to build on what they’ve already built. Seth Benzel has moved onto Saratoga proper, a barn away from his former mentor, Todd Pletcher. “I’m just glad to be in the game, I feel like I belong,” Benzel joked Tuesday morning after being tucked away in a private barn last summer. Last year’s winterbook Derby favorite Pyro runs in the third race on Opening Day. Shaun Bridgmohan, out since early July, cheered on the jumpers at the Open House Sunday and will be back in the tack, perhaps as early as this weekend. Jose Lezcano finished third in the jockey standings at Belmont Park and will try to continue his roll at his first Saratoga. And Springsteen is playing at SPAC on Travers Week.

What’s wrong? What’s missing?

Neil Howard. He shipped a string to Delaware Park instead of Saratoga and took The Special’s one guaranteed dose of logic and reason with him. Chad Brown moved into Howard’s old barn on the main track. Makes me wonder what would have been different (other than my bankroll) if Mambo In Seattle had won the head bob in last year’s Travers. Ocala Cedano and Howie Tesher didn’t make the trip. Neither did Toadie, there goes the quote machine. The “Frankel Parking” spot outside his barn on the edge of the Oklahoma track serves as a fragile reminder as the Hall of Fame battles illness in California. AM Saratoga is only doing weekends. Purses are down from last year’s meteoric heights.

Yes, the effects of real life and the recession still linger. But let’s talk about it in September.