Thursday, 07 September 2023 14:56

Saratoga Race Meet Ends on a High Note

By William G. Gotimer, Jr. | Winner's Circle
Photo provided by NYRA. Photo provided by NYRA.

And just like that the Saratoga Race Course rebounded with a tremendous final week of racing under spectacularly clear skies and comfortable temperatures.  While the previous six weeks were bedeviled by a legion of problems, the final week saw competitive races with larger fields and happy crowds enjoying the facility and its history. This was a throwback to earlier years as a sense of optimism and friendship was in the air. 

Linda Rice Leading Trainer

With a furious late rally in the closing days of the meet, trainer Linda Rice tied perennial leading trainer Chad Brown with 35 wins. She accomplished this with 36 fewer starts for the meet than Brown - 147 vs. 183 - and considerably less expensive racing stock. 

Linda Rice’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of her long-running legal battle with the New York State Gaming Commission is truly remarkable. In preparation for the meet, she amassed an impressive corps of runners primarily through the claiming boxes in New York and Kentucky. She arrived prepared from day one and ran her horses in every conceivable winning spot, bobbing and weaving in and among the various race conditions. 

A knowledgeable horse owner convinced me that not only is Linda Rice the leading trainer for the Saratoga meet – she is the leading contender for Trainer of the Year in North America for 2023. Her performance  this Saratoga meet builds upon her successes downstate and was accomplished mostly without the backing of moneyed owners. It is difficult to name a trainer who has had a better year.

Other trainers with notable meets were Gary Contessa who won only two races but made them count with upset winners on opening day with 2-year-old filly - Becky’ Joker - in the Schuylerville Stakes and then again on closing day with the 2-year-old colt – Nutella Fella - in the Hopeful. Both won at long odds. 

Other phoenix-like rises occurred for trainers Mark Hennig and Dick Dutrow both of whom had stellar meets and trainer Patrick Quick who had a successful meet with his small string of horses and should have more horses and better stock.

Irad Ortiz easily won the jockey title, but jockey Javier Castellano was the headliner as he continued his stellar 2023 with wins in both the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. 

Mike Venezia Memorial Award- Junior Alvarado

The 2023 Mike Venezia Memorial Award was presented to this year’s recipient Junior Alvarado in an emotional ceremony after Saturday’s 4th race (in which Alvarado won an unbelievably close photo finish). The award is named in honor of jockey Mike Venezia who was tragically killed in a spill at Belmont Park in 1988. 

The award is presented to a jockey who evidences the sportsmanship and citizenship that personified Mike Venezia. The Venezia family, including his widow Helene and children Michael and Alison, were in full attendance to honor his memory and considerable legacy of charitable works. Emotional speeches by Venezia’s son Michael and former rider Richard Migliore recalled the elder Venezia’s accomplishments off the track in supporting those in need as well as his mentorship to younger riders and service as the President of the Jockeys’ Guild.

Jockey Junior Alvarado, a Venezuelan native who is now proudly a US citizen, humbly accepted the honor while eloquently saying, “The Venezia Memorial Award is about representing the sport we love so much in the best way possible, I am thankful and proud to be chosen as this year’s winner and I look forward to celebrating with my family and thanking the Venezia family here at Saratoga Race Course.”

(As an aside, Alvarado concluded the race meet with an outstanding ride winning in the aforementioned Hopeful Stakes aboard Nutella Fella with a ride that is well worth watching again.)

Goodbyes

The final week of the Saratoga meet was filled with goodbyes and well wishes among the racing world, its fans and visitors. It is oft said that parting is sweet sorrow but the timeless nature of racing in general, and Saratoga in particular, makes the saying “till we meet again” particularly apropos. Nowhere was that more evident than the final Saturday night at Siros when old friends gathered (where they have for so many years) and celebrated the completion of another successful season. Those lucky enough to be in attendance after the outside bar closed saw what was perhaps the performance of the year when talented Siros’ employee Andrea Jacobs, regaled the crowd with two show stopping songs in the piano bar.  It was a fitting way to bring down the curtain on the season.

Personal

It has been my great pleasure and honor to write this weekly column. I have tried to capture accurately and honestly what the Saratoga Race Course scene means to its participants and fans. It is mostly about friends – old ones, new ones and those that are yet to come. I appreciate the many kind words I have received and value additional input. I may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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