It is that time of year in the Thoroughbred industry. The time when all the major outfits and those seeking to join the ranks are either entrenched in the ocean view at Del Mar or knee-deep in the historic surroundings of Saratoga Race Course.
While both boutique meets bring something new to the table as each get under way this week, quality remains the priority with neither wasting time giving patrons a dose.
The first Grade I races of Del Mar's summer meeting and the 40-day Saratoga exercise take place this weekend. The former's new, widened turf course will get tested in the Grade I Eddie Read Stakes on Sunday. Saratoga has the Grade I Diana Stakes for turf fillies and mares on Saturday and the Coaching Club American Oaks — a field of six 3-year-old fillies — on Sunday.
Stopchargingmaria will be the only graded stakes winner in the Coaching Club American Oaks field. Kentucky Oaks heroine Untapable bypassed the 11⁄8-mile race in favor of taking on males in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park on July 27.
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By contrast, the 11⁄8-mile Diana Stakes lured a well-matched group of 10 including Grade I winners Stephanie's Kitten, Emollient, Discreet Marq and Alterite.
Stephanie's Kitten and Alterite are trained by Chad Brown, with the latter making her first start in eight months after emerging from a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf with a small chip in one ankle.
Owned by Nicholasville-based owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey — who set a record for victories by an owner at Saratoga last year with 22 — Stephanie's Kitten will be making her third start since being transferred to Brown over the winter and enters off a fifth-place finish in the Grade I Just a Game Stakes on June 7.
"The two times she's run for me she hasn't hit the board," Brown said. "It's been frustrating for a horse that's a dual Grade I winner that we haven't been able to win a big race with her yet, but I think that she's sitting on a big race. I just have to draw a line through those because she's trained better than she's run for me. I still believe in her."
The New York Racing Association invested $1.9 million at Saratoga on a series of improvements, such as the addition of 500 high-definition televisions, and the on-track product should be equally stout with 33 graded stakes offering total purses of $17.45 million.
Both the Grade I, $1.25 million Travers on Aug. 23 and Grade I, $1.5 million Whitney on Aug. 2 received purse increases, having been previously worth $1 million and $750,000, respectively.
Two-time defending Horse of the Year Wise Dan is expected to make his first start since undergoing emergency colic surgery on May 16 with trainer Charlie LoPresti leaning toward a return in the Grade II, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap at the Spa on Aug. 9.
The Whitney is already shaping up as one of the best potential tests of the meet as champion and 2013 Travers winner Will Take Charge is on track to face 2013 Belmont Stakes victor and recent Met Mile winner Palace Malice in the 11⁄8-mile race.
"He likes Saratoga and he runs well up there," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Will Take Charge, second in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap last time out on June 14. "I'm optimistic, I think (the Whitney) will be a great race."
Del Mar's 11⁄8-mile Eddie Read attracted only six entrants, but a marquee matchup looms for the seaside venue. Shared Belief, the undefeated 2-year-old champion male of 2013 who was sidelined until late May with foot problems, is likely to face older horses including defending race winner Game On Dude in the Grade I Pacific Classic on Aug. 24.
Trainer Mark Casse, who earned his first Keeneland meet title last April and recently notched his first Queen's Plate triumph with the filly Lexie Lou, is expected to have as many as 40 horses at Del Mar.
Del Mar's meet runs through Sept. 3 with Saratoga running through Sept. 1.