It was like old times again here at the Spa. Rain on opening day, the largest on-track crowds in America and Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez picking up where they left off last year. John Velazquez, who won a record 61 races last year, got out of the gate like most of his mounts with 10 winners the first week. Pletcher, who won a record 35 races last year, maintained another record pace with six wins. Amazingly, it could have been better since Pletcher trainees finished second nine times. Wayne Lukas showed that the 69-year-old Hall of Fame trainer still has some big wins left in his stable. He had three wins for the week, including one of the early highlights of the meet - AZERI (Jade Hunter) winning the Go for Wand H. (G1). After winning the Apple Blossom (G1) in her first start of the year for her new trainer, AZERI went on an uncharacteristic three-race losing streak. Many were beginning to question Lukas' tactics and compared her to Lady's Secret whose career ended sadly while trying to become the leading female money earner. But Lukas never lost confidence in Azeri and raved all week about how well she was training. Also, all three recent losses were going one-turn and now she was back at two turns. Bobby Frankel, trainer of SIGHTSEEK (Distant View), whined all week about having to give two pounds to Azeri despite his filly winning the race last year by 11 lengths. And he indicated that Jerry Bailey would be instructed to keep Sightseek closer to the pace and keep some pressure on the front-running Azeri. When the gate opened for the Go for Wand, Pat Day sent Azeri to the front and the former 2002 Horse of the Year settled beautifully going into the first turn. Sightseek took up the chase and despite two other Grade 1 winners in the field, the Go for Wand was essentially a match race. The pace picked up some with six furlongs being run in 1:10.90. As they neared the top of the stretch, Day maintained his wide path on the drying-out main track and went to a left-hand whip turning for home. When Patient Pat goes to the whip early, 99 times out of 100 he has no horse left. But just when it looked like Bailey and Sightseek were poised to go by, Azeri dug in and spurted forward to draw off to a 1 3/4-length victory.Her final time was a stakes record in 1:47 4/5 and it will be interesting to see if the boys in the upcoming nine-furlong Whitney H. (G1) are able to go any faster. She might not get another two-turn race with a soft-pace scenario and receive weight again, but Azeri showed she's back at the top of her division. Her bankroll now totals $3,569,820, making her the leading money winning female in North American history. Quite an accomplishment for her late owner and breeder Allen Paulson, who also owned and bred Cigar, the all-time leading money winning horse in North America. The New York Racing Association changed its schedule of juvenile races this year. In an effort to provide horsemen with more space between events, they dropped the Saratoga Special and Adirondack from the Saratoga lineup and moved the Hopeful (G1) and Spinaway (G2) up two weeks earlier. The babies now have four weeks between the Schuylerville/Sanford (both Grade 2s) and the Hopeful/Spinaway with another four weeks until the Futurity (G1) and Frizette (G2) at Belmont. Some traditionalists have complained about dropping the Special and Adirondack, but horsemen seemed to have responded with full fields in the Schuylerville and Sanford. In Wednesday's Schuylerville, the public settled on BROADWAY GOLD (Seeking the Gold), winner of the Astoria S. in her last start for Stanley Hough by a wide margin, as the 23-10 favorite. The track was very muddy from torrential rains that hit Saratoga the day before and handicappers were struggling with which juvenile filly would take to the mud. Second choice in the wagering was CLASSIC ELEGANCE (Carson City), who won the Debutante S. (G3) last out at Churchill. Usually an offspring of Carson City is an automatic play on a wet track, but she drew the rail in the field of 10 and some in the field looked like they had more gate speed.Sure enough, after breaking with the pack out of the gate, Classic Elegance began to get shuffled back as the outside speed horses headed for the first turn. As the field went around the far turn, she dropped back enough to be out of the camera range and looked hopelessly beaten. In the stretch, 18-1 longshot ANGEL TRUMPET (Cape Canaveral ) opened up a clear lead over WILD CHICK (Forest Wildcat) and DARN THAT GIRL (Darn That Alarm) and looked home free when from out of the clouds Classic Elegance re-appeared on the scene with a furious rally down the middle of the track. The Lukas trainee won going away by a length. Amazing stuff. Thursday's Sanford (G2) also featured a wide-open, competitive field due to the new juvenile stakes schedule. The betting public settled on Delaware Park shipper AFLEET ALEX (Northern Afleet ) as the tepid 3-1 favorite and he won like he should have been 1-9. Racing just off the pace down the backside, the bay colt commenced a five-wide rally around the far turn and drew off to an incredibly easy 5 1/4-length win in the blazing-fast time of 1:09.32.Winner of a maiden and an allowance race at Delaware by a combined 23 lengths, Afleet Alex might have some pedigree challenges down the road when the races get longer, but for now I think his rival's trainers are going to be scouring the out-of-town condition books to avoid this guy.
HORSES TO WATCHWednesday (7/28)
Race 2 - TROUNCE (Gulch) chased a runaway winner and weakened late in his first start in three months. Should be much fitter next time out. Thursday (7/29)
Race 5 - RENAMED (Artax) broke a step slow from post 1 and then rushed up to contend before tiring late. Give her one more chance from a better post. Race 8 - SMOKESCREEN (Smoke Glacken) lost all chance when he broke awkwardly and then ran one-paced. Friday (7/30)
Race 7 - PHILADELPHIA JIM (Mr. Greeley) couldn't run down the early leader and may have been compromised by jockey Ramon Dominguez's injured shoulder. Race 8 - IRISH COLONIAL (Colonial Affair) rallied furiously through the lane despite being on the wrong lead. Should handle New York-bred company in the West Point H. Saturday (7/31)
Race 2 - OCOTILLO (Olympio) looked like he could get to the front, but he lost all chance when he hit the gate at the start and had to make a big middle move around the turn. Race 7 - SAND SPRINGS (Dynaformer) looked like she could be the danger on the front end, but her chances were hurt by a sudden thunderstorm that softened the course. Race 9 - WILLY O' THE VALLEY (Will's Way) lost all chance when he broke slowly from post 1 in this seven-furlong sprint, but still continued on gamely on a speed-favoring muddy track.