Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas smiled and nodded Monday morning as he watched horse vans makes their deliveries to barns near the Oklahoma training track adjacent to Saratoga Race Course.
"It seems like I just left here," he said.
A severe winter has come and gone in the 46 weeks since Lukas left Saratoga Springs following the 2002 Saratoga meeting. With stakes winners Scrimshaw and Proud Citzen and a brigade of promising prospects, Lukas is back in Saratoga for the 135th season of racing. The six-week, 36-day meet begins Wednesday.
Lukas said he enjoys what Saratoga has to offer.
"The thing that happens up here is I think everybody just takes a deep breath," he said. "It's the most competitive racing. It's as difficult to win a race here as probably any place in the world -- this and Ascot would be the two -- yet when you go over there it seems like there is an atmosphere that is much more relaxing than any of the other meets that I go to."
Despite the pressure to win at Saratoga, Lukas said there is great camaraderie among horsemen when they are in Saratoga Springs.
"It's a great atmosphere," he said. "I go 365 days a year. I never miss a day at the barn for anything -- Easter, Christmas. Whatever. Birthdays. Nothing. So, for me, it's kind of a step backwards and lets me kind of refresh myself.
"I think if I had to go with the Belmont, Churchill, Santa Anita meets around the clock I think I'd have to take a break. But this one kind of refreshes me."
Lukas said he is planning to use the the six-furlong Amsterdam (gr.II) on Aug. 2 as the Travers (gr.I) prep for Coolmore Lexington (gr.II) winner Scrimshaw.
"That's my first choice right now," Lukas said. "I was behind a little bit with him in the Triple Crown and I made all three dances. I gave him 28 or 30 days where I really lightened up on him. I just don't think I'm tight enough to go in the Jim Dandy (gr.II), which would be the second choice."
Despite an invitation, Lukas said he has pretty much ruled out running the colt in the Haskell (gr.I) at Monmouth Park on Aug. 3.
Instead, he'll bring Scrimshaw back in a sprint.
"He's got good tactical speed," Lukas said. "If I could get a good run out of him, I don't say we'd win it, but he can run 1:08 and change and that might be good enough. I might shorten him up and try it. I had good luck doing that with Proud Citizen and some of those others. That's my thought because I don't think I'm tight enough to go in (the Jim Dandy). If these other guys are ready, and I assume they are, I don't think I'm ready."
Proud Citizen is headed for the Whitney, (gr.I) on Aug. 2.
Lukas will jump right into stakes competition with his 2-year-olds on Wednesday with Be Gentle in the Schuylerville (gr.II). On Thursday, he'll saddle Adage and Boston Brahmin in the Sanford (gr.II) Bird Town 'Doing Fabublous'
Marylou Whitney's Kentucky Oaks (gr.I) and Acorn (gr.I) winner Bird Town returns to the races after a nearly two-month layoff Saturday in the Test (gr.I).
Trainer Nick Zito is using the Test as a steppingstone to the Alabama (gr.I) on Aug. 16.
"She's doing fabulous," Zito said Monday after Bird Town worked five furlongs under exercise rider Maxine Correa. "She went 1:02, went real nice, and galloped out real strong," Zito said.
Following the Acorn on June 6, Zito gave the Bird Town a break, skipping the Mother Goose (gr.I), in order to prepare her for Saratoga and the fall races.
"Obviously, the rest did her some good," Zito said. "She had a whole bunch of works up here this summer, which was good. I'm just happy to have her and am looking forward to it.
"After the Test, the main concern is the Alabama. That's what we're trying to do. It's been done before. A lot of fillies over the years have done it. We're traditionalists. This is what I had to do. I couldn't run back in the Mother Goose. I had to pick the Mother Goose or the Acorn. Obviously, we guessed right, we won the Acorn, and now the next step will be the Alabama." Weather Permitting, Volponi Works Wednesday
Depending on the weather, Breeders' Cup Classic (gr.I) winner Volponi may continue his preparations for the Whitney (gr.I) Wednesday morning.
"It's supposed to rain and I don't work anything in the mud," trainer P.J. Johnson said Monday. "If it's a nice day Wednesday morning he'll work right after the break. I'm not sure on which track."
Johnson sent his horses to the Oklahoma track on Monday and plans to use the main track Tuesday morning.
There is rain in the forecast for the Saratoga region for much of the week. When Volponi does get out for his breeze with regular rider Jose Santos, he'll probably go five furlongs.
As a final tuneup, Johnson expects the homebred to work four furlongs next week. "He's pretty fit but I want to keep his mind on his business," Johnson said.Saratoga Open House Success
A crowd estimated at over 20,000 visited Saratoga Race Course on Sunday for the track's 23rd annual open house.
There were several non-wagering races held, some of them for steeplechase runners, and the remainder as part of the annual Newman E. Wait Jr. Trials. The late Wait, was a banker in Saratoga Springs and a member of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association.
In addition to the races, the open house included music, backstretch tours, games for children and food sold by local non-profit organizations.