Major League Baseball just celebrated its All-Star Game last month in Pittsburgh, representing the traditional midpoint as "America's Pastime" heads into its second season and hits the turn on its run to the World Series in October. So, too, is Thoroughbred racing entering its second season.
And it's a strong start. Del Mar raised the curtain on its summer meeting July 19 before an opening-day record crowd of 42,005. Saratoga's 36-day stand commenced a week later, signaling a transition from the 3-year-old season to a late-summer and fall run of top 2-year-old racing and championship-caliber races as sophomores begin to mix it up with the handicap division. Juveniles Cotton Blossom and Scat Daddy delivered impressive performances back to back on the first two days at the Spa.
A word forever intertwined with the sport is "tradition." As static as the landscape may appear as summer days begin to shorten, there is plenty on the horizon to suggest the sport isn't completely averse to change. At Saratoga, where history hangs heavy in the August air, the schedule of races takes a major turn this season with the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) on offer at the Spa for the first time in the race's 53-year history. Hoping to bolster interest at the end of the meet's six-week run, the Woodward anchors Saratoga's closing Labor Day weekend. Gracing the end of the meet will be a final weekend return of the Hopeful and Spinaway (both gr. I)...as New York racing will "spin away" back to Belmont Sept. 8.
Things are noticeably changing on the West Coast, too. The installation of Equestrian Surfaces' "Cushion Track" to the main track at Hollywood Park got under way July 18. The deal is worth a reported $8 million. The Inglewood, Calif., track becomes the first major facility in California to tear out its main track for a California Horse Racing Board-mandated synthetic surface. Hollywood officials also announced they will be installing a new turf chute to accommodate six-furlong races as another way to fill the starting gate when the fall meet opens Nov. 1.
Horsemen will soon have another avenue of riches to chase over Polytrack when Woodbine in Canada finishes converting its main dirt track. Work is reportedly ahead of schedule with an unveiling slated by the end of the month.
"Racing as it was meant to be" will take on a different meaning Oct. 6 when Keeneland opens its fall meeting with a new Polytrack main track. Regardless of what horsemen have said about the dirt surface for years, Keeneland's rich purses and key October dates have made the Lexington track a "destination" in and of itself and also a successful springboard for the Breeders' Cup World Championships regardless of their location. The Breeders' Cup returning to nearby Churchill Downs this year makes Keeneland's popular Fallstars weekend the first major Polytrack preps for racing's $20-million day. We're not counting on an "October surprise."
Many Major League Baseball teams played on artificial surfaces back when AstroTurf and other synthetic surfaces filled multi-purpose, cookie-cutter and domed stadiums that were built in the 1970s and '80s. Most of the "rugs" have since been ripped out and replaced with real, live sod. Let's hope racing's synthetic surfaces prove to be safer and longer lasting.
Racing will have to hold out longer--another week this year for the World Championships that will be held Nov. 4 instead of what had become a "traditional" date on the last weekend of October, which allowed the event to be run on the last day of Daylight Savings Time. Remember Alysheba emerging from the darkness in the Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Nov. 5, 1988?
The Breeders' Cup will be held under the Twin Spires for a record sixth time, and for the first time in six years. With renewals in 1988, '91, '94, '98, and '00, it's the longest gap between runnings at Churchill in the 22-year history of the event. In that short period of time, the Breeders' Cup is a proven closer to racing's second season.