The Saturday Special – Sept. 17

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Nations Pride and William Buick, winners of the Saratoga Derby last time out, return for Saturday’s Jockey Club Derby at Belmont at the Big A. Tod Marks Photo.

As hard as it is to believe we’re almost two weeks removed from the end of the 2022 Saratoga meet, that’s where we find ourselves just past the halfway point of September.

Kentucky Downs and Colonial Downs wrapped up, too, and racing made the shift to Aqueduct for the Belmont at the Big A meet, along with the opening of Churchill Downs’ September stand. All that sets the stage for even bigger racing down the road, with Keeneland and Santa Anita not too far off and the Breeders’ Cup come early November.

We’ll put a proper bow on the Saratoga season here as we reboot our weekly (hopefully more than weekly down the road) editions of The Special. Come here for previews and recaps, Here & There, columns, picks and more.

Here’s your Saturday Special for September 17. Enjoy and good luck at the races.

Handicapper’s Report

We have to start here. How good was John Shapazian this season at Saratoga?

Consider that he racked up 138 winners during what we believe to be a record season in 2021, but he went two better in 2022 with a strike race of 140-for-417. That’s a rate of 33.6 percent if you’re scoring at home.

The battle for leading handicapper in The Special’s Power Grid got close with six days to go as Tom Law rallied from a terrible start to cut John’s lead to one. John led 113-112 going into the last week and it never was that close from there.

John picked 27 winners from the 68 races the final week – just shy of a 40-percent strike rate – to hold onto another title. We’ve lost track of how many he’s won, but suffice to say it’s a lot.

Tom limped in second after taking plenty of stabs over the final two days especially, and finished with 127 winners. That’s nine fewer than 2021.

Rob Whitlock, who doubled up on The Special’s team this year as a valued, reliable and lead man on the in-town distribution effort, showed improvement in his fourth season in the Power Grid. Rob finished with 119 winners, four more than 2021 and good enough for third.

Charles Bedard checked in fourth with 115 winners and Jessica Paquette, who maintained a rigorous travel schedule going back and forth from her home near Boston to Colonial Downs every week, rounded out the group with 87 winners.

Worth Repeating
“I spoke to one of the biggest buyers on the way in this morning and they said they vetted 38 horses yesterday and only managed to buy one. That was pretty staggering to hear. It’s frustrating for them, I’m sure, but it is what creates a buoyant market like we’re seeing here and hopefully putting a lot of money in our breeders’ pockets as well.” 
Keeneland Director of Sales Operations Cormac Breathnach, on the strength of the September yearling sale

“We love everything about Kentucky racing. Whether it’s here, Turfway, Ellis … Kentucky is home and Kentucky is where all my favorite tracks are. The way I look at it, Kentucky Downs has been about 10 percent of my business the last, seven, eight years. Cram that 10 percent into five days for years, that is pretty remarkable.”
Mike Maker after winning the Kentucky Downs training title with 12 wins

“He gives more life advice than anything else. Getting life advice from him … I should pay him with all the good advice he has given me.”
Robbie Medina on training for Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells. The two teamed to win Wednesday’s $400,000 Pepsi Gun Runner Stakes at Kentucky Downs with Play Action Pass

“He spoke for himself winning the Saratoga Special, all the credit goes to him. He’s just awesome.”
Trainer Michelle Lovell on Damon’s Mound, who runs in Saturday’s Iroquois at Churchill Downs

By the Numbers
28: Yearlings that sold for $1 million or more during the first three days of the Keeneland September sale, the highest number since the 2007 September sale.

878,211,963: Dollars in all-sources handle for the 2022 Saratoga meet, a record and up 7.7 percent from last year’s record $815,508,063.

152,274,728: Dollars in on-track handle for the Saratoga meet, up 10.5 percent from the $137,765,882 in 2021.

21,955,299: Dollars in average daily handle at the 2022 Saratoga meet.

1,075,586: Total paid attendance for 2022 at Saratoga, the seventh consecutive season with paid attendance in the seven figures when fans were allowed into the racetrack. Average daily attendance was 26,980.

16: Races moved off the turf at the Saratoga meet, down from 45 in 2021.

7.8: Average field size at the 2022 Saratoga meet, up from 7.7 last year.

33: Stakes on the calendar worth $6,375,000 for the 2022 fall meet at Aqueduct.

18,500: Projected foals in the 2023 crop, about 200 less than the 2022 estimate, according to The Jockey Club.

18.25: Percentage increase on total sales of yearlings during the first four days of the Keeneland September yearling sale compared to last year. Keeneland reported sales on 669 yearlings for $236,990,000 for Week 1, compared to $200,419,000 last year. The average price of $354,245 is up 9.6 percent from $323,256 last year, and median is up 10 percent from $250,000 to $275,000.

Guest Column: My unforgettable summer in Saratoga

By Ryan Keefe

In May I graduated from the University of Kentucky (Go Cats) with a degree in communications and was admittedly not the most scholarly of students.

So, you can bet put off this column on my Saratoga experience ever since Sean Clancy gave me the assignment during the first week of the meet. I got my prompt reminder to get writing with a “How’s your column coming?” text the last Wednesday of the meet.

Being the daughter of Maryland-based trainer Tim Keefe, some of my earliest memories are of the racetrack. I had predominantly been involved in the three-day eventing world growing up however, due to the influence of my mother and grandmother. I continued to event throughout college, but also immersed myself in the Thoroughbred industry, which isn’t hard to do in the horse country that is Lexington, Kentucky. My original post-graduation plan of heading to England to work for event rider Harry Meade had been slightly delayed with visa issues, so I was on the hunt to find something to fill my summer.

Upon graduation, I finished up the breeding season at Margaux Farm, where I had thoroughly enjoyed the past year being exposed to the operation of a full-service Thoroughbred farm, and headed home to Maryland with Rolo (my Jack Russell) and Sally (my racehorse-turned-event-horse) in tow.

Enter my good friend and college roommate Samantha Bussanich. If you were a part of Samantha’s friend group in college, you were automatically a Casse Racing groupie and were

familiar with the likes of Got Stormy, War of Will and Tepin. Samantha has always advocated for the involvement of younger people in racing, and has frequently brought along friends to cheer on Team Casse in the afternoons at Keeneland or for night racing at Churchill Downs.

She was planning on spending her summer in Saratoga before starting a new job, and had put it in the back of mind earlier in the spring that I could do the same. I’d gone back and forth on it until one day I was talking with an experienced Saratoga summer resident who said, “no one goes up to Saratoga and doesn’t have a great time.” For some reason that was the final push I needed to go for it.

On the good word of Samantha, Mark’s assistant Shane Tripp agreed to take me on, so Rolo and I headed to Saratoga unsure of what to expect but with hopes that I’d made a good decision. It was only an eight-week commitment, so if I didn’t love it how bad could it be?

What I didn’t expect is that those eight weeks would fly by and I’d be ending the summer ready to come back for the next. I thought I’d share some of the moments that shaped my summer, whether they were “firsts” for me or just favorite memories that I will think back on. In no particular order:

• I enjoyed my time on our superstar pony Styles, who took great care of this green pony girl.

My favorite time spent with Styles was ponying horses over to turf works. I had to take a

moment to think about how lucky I was getting to watch quality horse one after the other breeze a few feet in front of me.

• I got my steps in walking hots and enjoyed my first win as a hot walker with Sinfully Sweet. It’s funny how exciting it feels every time to be a part of the team when you get lucky and reach the winner’s circle.

• I got in my first graded stake winner’s circle when Bobby O upset the Grade 3 With Anticipation. There was a running theory amongst some in the barn that there was a correlation between flowers in the barn and winners, so surely his win was some proof? Either way it was pretty amusing to see Shane’s reaction whenever he noticed that Samantha and I had found more hanging plants to add to the shedrow. We made out great in the flower department at the Fasig-Tipton barns post-sale, much to his disapproval.

• I became accustomed to the unique characteristics and traditions that make Saratoga such a special place. The 17 minutes to post bell became natural. The music during paddock schooling was always a hit. There was many a golf cart trip taken to Dunkin’ once it hit 7 a.m.

• The honk of Wawa’s truck as he made his morning rounds never failed to catch the immediate attention of Samantha and I as it meant breakfast burritos were near. (Shoutout to our favorite groom Humberto for supporting the burrito fund).

• Sales week hit hard as it only can in Saratoga. We made sure to spend time in the legends that are Siro’s, Gaffney’s and The Parting Glass (and felt the effects the next morning when the alarm blared after what felt like a five-minute nap).

• I was privileged to witness amazing performances by athletes at the top of their game on a great stage: Jackie’s Warrior in the Vanderbilt, Malathaat in the Personal Ensign, and of course Nest in the Alabama. I’m a fan.

• Travers Day was one I won’t forget. It was special to walk to the paddock and see the sheer amount of happy people gathered in one place, eager to be a part of horse racing at its best. You forget about the outside world for just a bit and are encompassed by the world of Saratoga. It makes you want to capture it in a bottle for later on.

While I may have come up to Saratoga with some doubts and fear of the unknown, I left with expectations exceeded. I was part of a team with horses and people who I won’t soon forget.

I thank them for shaping my summer into a great one. I can now confidently agree with the statement, “no one goes up to Saratoga and doesn’t have a great time.”

As for the races…
Churchill Downs. Race 7. 3:50. Bell’s The One, Joyful Cadence and Sconsin meet again in the $300,000 Open Mind. They were 1-2-3 in the Lady Tak on Arlington Million Day and could all be players down in the road in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Belmont at the Big A. Race 7. 4:07. McKulick, winner of the Belmont Oaks and runner-up in the Saratoga Oaks, looks to add the Grade 3 Jockey Club Oaks Invitational to her resume. She’s odds-on favorite against five others, including German shipper Toskana Belle and jockey Frankie Dettori and last-out Saratoga winner Beside Herself.

Woodbine. Race 7. 4:22. Godolphin and Charlie Appleby figure to continue successful American invasion with Mysterious Night here in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes.

Churchill. Race 8. 4:22. Crazy Beautiful will appreciate class relief after finishing behind Malathaat, Search Results and Letruska in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign last time out. She meets stablemate Envoutante, Played Hard and Gold Spirit in the Grade 3 Locust Grove.

Belmont at the Big A. Race 8. 4:39. How good of a meet did Phil Serpe have at Saratoga? He runs King Angelo here in 6-furlong open allowance on the grass.

Monmouth Park. Race 11. 4:53. The $500,000 Nownownow, which gave us last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf post-time favorite Dakota Gold, attracted a field of 10 led by Skidmore Stakes winner Oxymore and impressive Saratoga maiden winners Let’s Go Big Blue and Conman, along with Tryo runner-up Power Attack, Bramble Blaze, Love Me Not, El de Chimi and Torrone.

Woodbine. Race 8. 4:55. Souper Sensational just missed last time out in the Grade 3 Caress and looks tough in Grade 3 Seaway back on synthetic and going 7 furlongs. Don’t overlook Lady Speightspeare, she’ll be favored for a reason.

Churchill. Race 9. 4:55. Damon’s Mound, winner of the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, and hyped Saratoga maiden winner Echo Again stand out in the Grade 3 Iroquois going 1 1/16 miles.

Churchill. Race 10. 5:26. Isolate gave trainer Tom Amoss milestone victory last time winning the Tale Of The Cat. Now he could add another stakes here in the $275,000 Louisville Thoroughbred Society at 6 furlongs.

Woodbine. Race 9. 5:35. The featured Grade 1 Ricoh Woodbine Mile. Modern Games, a proper Group 1 horse in Europe and first across the finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year, looks tough for Godolphin and Charlie Appleby. Ivar, Shirl’s Speight, Homer Screen, Get Smokin and our old friend March To The Arch could play spoiler.

Belmont at the Big A. Race 10. 5:45. National Pride and Classic Causeway, 1-3 in the Grade 1 Saratoga Derby, are back for the $1 million Grade 3 Caesars Jockey Club Derby Invitational. Small field of six also includes German shipper and Italian Group 2 winner  Ardakan and The Grey Wizard.

Churchill. Race 11. 5:58. The Grade 3 Pocahontas lures big field of 12 2-year-old fillies, including Saratoga maiden winner Grand Love for Steve Asmussen, Grade 2 Adirondack winner Naughty Gal for D. Wayne Lukas and Ellis Park maiden winners Southlawn for Norm Casse and Jet Setting for Brad Cox.

Woodbine. Race 10. 6:10. The Grade 1s keep coming. Here’s the $500,000 Johnnie Walker Natalma for 2-year-old fillies. Mark Casse and Kevin Attard have five of the eight, but it’s Nathan Squires’ Cairo Consort that is the one to beat.