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07-29-2004, 04:38 PM
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At the Gate by
Michael Dempsey

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At Saratoga, the fun starts on Wednesday, July 28 and runs through Labor Day, Monday, September 6. There are 43 stakes races on the schedule including 13 Grade I races. There are stakes for everyone, and we will see some of the best two year olds, three year olds, and handicap division leaders during the meet.

Hopefully the weather will cooperate better this year. Rain played havoc with turf races as 31 races were taken off the grass and were run on the main track due to the weather. Trainer Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez dominated the meet, both setting records. Pletcher won a record 35 races at the meet including six stakes. His runners topped the $2 million mark in earnings. Bill Mott was a distant second in the standings with 17 wins.

Velazquez finished the meet with a record 61 wins, which broke the record previously held by Jerry Bailey with 55. His earnings topped $3 million, which was second to Bailey's $3.4 million. Here is a quick look at the second meet:

What: Saratoga Race Course's 136th season
When: 36 day meet. July 28 through September 6. No racing on Tuesdays.
Post time: 1 p.m. eastern. Traver's Day post time is 12:30 eastern.



Trainers to Watch: Obviously Pletcher will again be a dominant force at the meet, but his runners may get too much attention at the windows. Look for Bill Mott to have a big meet. He has been winning at better than a 30% clip the last month and will come into the meet with maidens and runners eligible for early allowance conditions that will be live. Phil Serpe had a strong meet last year, winning ten races and staying under the radar screen with many bettors.

Another trainer that will offer value is John Terranova, who won with 6 of 17 starters last year at the meet. Scott Lake struggled in his first year at Saratoga and last year won with just 7 of 45 starters, below his average. Look for him to do better this year in claiming races. George Weaver, a former Todd Pletcher assistant, has a couple of turf runners in his barn that could win at a price. Steve Asmussen has a barn full of two year olds, but after dominating the Churchill Downs meet with his babies, the value may not be there.

Jockeys to Watch: As long as Velazquez is riding first call for Pletcher and Bailey rides for whomever he chooses, they are going to be dominant at the meet. Last year they accounted for 107 wins between them. But nobody is riding better right now than Edgar Prado. He has a good shot of pulling off the upset this year in the jockey standings. For value look for apprentice Fernando Jara, who is starting to impress and is getting more live mounts recently. Javier Castellano booted home a couple of longshots last year when finishing eighth in the standings and is coming off a strong meet at Belmont Park.

Track Bias: After stalkers and closers had the advantage in three of the first six days of the meet, the main track played fair most of the meet. There were six days where speed was better, seven days where stalkers and closers had the advantage. It was similar to how the track played in 2002.

Can't Miss Day: Saturday, August 28. The Grade I Travers for three year olds will be run this day at 1 1/4 miles for three year olds. We will likely see Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, but don't expect to see Smarty Jones in the Travers. He is being pointed toward the Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park. On the Travers' undercard is the King's Bishop and Fourstardave Handicap.

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