By Gene Kershner
We move from the summer places to be back to the some of the tracks with the largest grandstands in Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. The Great Race Place will not start its Autumn meeting in Arcadia, California until Sept. 27, which will lead up to the Breeders' Cup World Championships on Nov. 1 and 2. Santa Anita will host the Breeders' Cup for the second consecutive year and has been awarded the 2014 races as well. Churchill (Friday) and Belmont (Saturday) open up this weekend with their respective Fall meetings.
Some thoughts as we head into the weekend…
- The New York Racing Association released final handle and attendance figures on the recently 40-day Saratoga meet. All-sources handle declined 0.3 percent to $568.7 million down from $588.4 million in 2012. On-track handle was off 2.1 percent from 2011. Attendance for the meet was 867,182, a 3.9 percent decrease from 901,033 in 2012.
- Todd Pletcher won the Saratoga trainer title for the fourth consecutive year and the tenth time in his career winning 36 races. Javier Castellano won his first jockey title with 66 wins, falling three short of Ramon Dominguez' record set last year. Ken and Sarah Ramsey took down the owner's title with a record-breaking 22 victories in achieving their third career Saratoga owner's title.
- How impressive was Strong Mandate's Hopeful victory for trainer D. Wayne Lukas who also won the Grade 1 Travers the week before? Lukas celebrated his 78th birthday in style, winning the Grade 1 race for the seventh time and first since 2009, when Dublin won the race for him. The Tiznow colt decimated the field by 9 3/4-lengths in the slop.
- The win by jockey Jose Ortiz aboard Strong Mandate was his first in a Grade 1 race and he was very excited about his colt's performance. "I asked him a little bit because I knew [Corfu] is a tough horse," said Ortiz. "I cracked him one time on the shoulder and he put me right beside him, so I knew I had a lot of horse. At the eighth pole I looked back, and nobody was coming. I'm very happy, very excited."
- Believe it or not, the Road to the Kentucky Derby starts this weekend with a race at Churchill Downs. Saturday's Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes will be the first race that kicks off the second year of the points system utilized to determine the 20 starters for the Run for the Roses.
- The NYRA will offer a new Pick 5 wager every race day. The 50-cent minimum, 15-percent takeout wager will span the first five races of each race day. This wager should be popular with horseplayers, a bet that has been well received on the west coast at Del Mar and Santa Anita.
- Another NYRA wager which will only be available on Thursdays will be a joint Pick-4 with Penn National, which will also feature a 50-cent minimum and low 15-percent takeout. The Thursday Pick 4 will link the final two races at Belmont Park with the first two races at Penn National Race Course. The wager will commence Thursday, September 12. You ask why Penn National? Well, NYRA's former media director is now the director of racing operations at Penn National, so draw your own conclusions.
- The biggest day of the Belmont meet is Super Saturday on Sept. 28 when Big Sandy will host six stakes worth $3.4 million: the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational, the Grade 1, $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, the Grade 1, $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational, the Grade 1, $400,000 Vosburgh Invitational, the Grade 1, $400,000 Beldame Invitational, and the Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso Handicap. The News will have a preview of Super Saturday in print that morning.
- The News visited with winning Spinaway trainer Leah Gyramati during the Saratoga meet while watching a workout for Bona Ventures Stables' Smooth Bert. We happened to meet her Spinaway winner Sweet Reason at the barns that morning, and found a very feisty filly in her stall. She blew away the talented field on an off track by 5 3/4 lengths which was similar to her maiden breaking victory earlier in the Saratoga meet. In her debut, also on a sloppy track, Sweet Reason dropped 18 lengths off the pace in a 5 1/2-furlong sprint and rolled by the entire field to win by 6 1/4 lengths. It was the first Grade 1 victory for Gyramati, who was nursing a baby squirrel back to health at her barn during the News' visit.