Game time at the Spa

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The long wait is over and the day is here.

A few were already looking forward to it as Golden Tornado occupied his place in the winner’s circle after the final race on the final day of last year’s meet. Others made a mental note that it was a little less than seven months to go once they heard the last noisemaker and finished the last of the New Year’s Eve champagne. Even more start to count down the days just as the dust settles from the spring classics.

Lucky for them, and for everyone, the day is here.

Opening day of the Saratoga Race Course meeting is here and on tap are 40 days of racing that will go a long way toward determining berths in championship events later this fall and subsequent season-ending titles and at the same time validate or expose performances from earlier this year.

There are few places to hide at the Spa and even less easy spots. Winning anywhere is tough. Trying to win at Saratoga can sometimes seem downright diabolical. Just ask some trainers and jockeys who posted win percentages in the single digits with ample opportunities last season-we won’t name names, just not our style-but you get the point.

Saratoga is the place where the oldest racing traditions on this side of the Atlantic Ocean-consider that this year’s meeting commemorates 150 years of racing at the Spa, the sesquicentennial as the locals like to call it-meet the best competition. Other summertime spots can boast of this and that, but they’re just not Saratoga.

Del Mar’s got the ocean.

Arlington, the Million.

South Florida, the heat (although it feels around here like it got pushed north this summer) and two tracks this year.

No disrespect to some others, but most of the others don’t have anything people are looking for on vacation.

Saratoga, of course, has the horses. Just about every year, and especially so this year.

Consider that each of the winners of the 2013 spring classics-Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Preakness winner Oxbow and Belmont winner Palace Malice-are all being pointed toward the signature race of the meeting, the Aug. 24 Travers Stakes. A lot can change over the course of the five-plus weeks it will take to get to the fourth weekend in August, but if any or even all members of that trio stub their toe along the way there is more than enough star power to carry the meeting.

Wise Dan is here, a Horse of the Year title, two other divisional Eclipse Awards, a Breeders’ Cup Mile crown and five other stakes wins from as many starts removed from his popular score in last season’s Fourstardave Handicap. The 6-year-old gelding is under consideration for that same race again this year, run Aug. 10, along with a possible run back on the dirt in the Whitney Invitational a week earlier.

Charlie LoPresti bedded his small string down in the same barn he trained the eventual Horse of the Year out of last year and is glad to be back.

“Where else am I going to go with him?” LoPresti said earlier this week, just a few feet from the stall where the Horse of the Year was taking a well-earned nap after a long van ride from Lexington. “As for where we’ll run, it’s all how he’s doing. I’m going to let this horse tell me. When we left Keeneland this horse was spot on. I can tell you I would not have been afraid if there was a race this weekend to just ship him in and run.”

There’s plenty of other equine royalty already on the grounds or headed this way, including Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar, top female turf stars Stephanie’s Kitten and Centre Court, defending champion female sprinter Groupie Doll and leading steeplechaser Demonstrative to name just a few.

And of course, Saratoga’s got the 2-year-olds.

The maiden races frequently come up as tough as stakes and the six graded stakes, well, they might get knocked from time to time for not being this or not being that, but they remain on everyone’s radar. Two of those races-today’s Schuylerville for fillies and Monday’s Sanford-get the meet started and will undoubtedly kick off the buzz about the babies that filters throughout the town right on through Labor Day.

The buzz is justified, especially in recent years. Consider that the winners of the last six Triple Crown races-I’ll Have Another and Union Rags in 2012 and the aforementioned Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice-all competed at Saratoga at some point in their juvenile campaigns.

Todd Pletcher knows a thing or two about 2-year-old racing at Saratoga. The three-time defending training champion at the meet-and nine-time leader overall in a little more than 17 years with his license-won 23 juvenile races at Saratoga last season. Four of the five colts Pletcher started in this year’s Kentucky Derby raced last year at the Spa, including debut winners Overanalyze and Charming Kitten and second-out winner Palace Malice. He also won with champion Shanghai Bobby, Dreaming of Julia, Violence and Kauai Katie.

“It’s always an exciting time of year with the 2-year-olds getting ready to run,” Pletcher said earlier this week just outside his barn at the Oklahoma training track. “It’s exciting when you’re debuting horses. You never know until you run them, but we think we’ve got a good group.”

The juvenile races make up a significant portion of the racing programs at Saratoga. Case in point today’s 10-race card that includes three 2-year-old races.

“To be successful up here you have to have strength in 2-year-olds, and I think that’s why Todd’s been so strong all these years,” said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, a six-time leading trainer at Saratoga over a seven-year span from 1986 to 1992. “The purse structure is so good with 2-year-olds here that if they can run you’re almost better off running them here as opposed to running them earlier at say Belmont or Churchill. With the way the purses are set up here if you think they’re a stone-cold runner, you might as well run them here.”

Pletcher starts and usually finishes the conversation about leading trainer honors, but there’s plenty of depth among his colleagues with Chad Brown, Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen most likely in the mix. The jockey colony is as deep as ever, even without three-time Eclipse Award-winner and 2012 leader Ramon Dominguez retired. Joel Rosario, John Velazquez, Jose Lezcano and Javier Castellano figure to battle it out with Rosie Napravnik, Junior Alvarado, Rajiv Maragh, Irad Ortiz Jr. and Cornelio Velasquez in the hunt.

Ken Ramsey expects to lay over the competition in the owner’s race, just as he did during record-setting meets this year at Gulfstream, Keeneland and Churchill. He threw down the gauntlet earlier this week, predicting a record number of winners at the Spa.

“It should be interesting,” Ramsey said. “I think 18 wins is a record up there, at least that’s what I found out. We’re shooting for 20. I don’t know if that will win the title, but I’ll go on record and say we’ll win 20 races at Saratoga.”

So how exactly is he going to win all those races over the 40-day meeting that opens Friday and runs through Monday, Sept. 2?

“We’re looking the best we have ever looked,” Ramsey said. “I’m going to run Stephanie’s Kitten up there in the Grade 1 Diana, Kitten’s Dumplings in the Lake George, she should be competitive. We’ve got Real Solution, we’re still trying to figure out which stakes race to run him in. They’re all by Kitten’s Joy of course. … I’ll just say, I’m loaded.”