By BRIEN BOUYEA, Communications Officer, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame
Saratoga Race Course roared into the new millennium, bucking the nationwide trend of the declining popularity experienced by thoroughbred racing. With its original charm still evident in just about every nook and cranny, the oldest active sporting venue in the country continued to play host to an elite level of racing and several new stars.
The first major standout of the new millennium was future Hall of Famer Point Given. Following jaw-dropping victories in the Preakness and Belmont, Point Given dusted the competition in the 2001 Travers to join only Hall of Famers Man o' War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, and Damascus as winners of the Preakness, Belmont, and Travers.
The Nick Zito-trained Commentator became a fan favorite at the Spa by winning the Whitney in 2005 and then coming back three years later as a 7-year-old to capture the same event and etch his name into Saratoga lore. Long a Spa favorite, Zito was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, one year after he won a memorable running of the Travers with Birdstone.
The 2004 Midsummer Derby was played out as storm clouds turned day into night in an eerie scene. Owned by Saratoga icon Marylou Whitney, Birdstone had already made a name for himself by famously denying Smarty Jones the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The track was shrouded in almost total darkness when Edgar Prado guided Birdstone past the finish line to victory. A wicked summer thunderstorm then opened up over the Spa oval to cap a surreal day at old Saratoga.
In 2007, Street Sense became the first Kentucky Derby winner to also win the Travers since Thunder Gulch accomplished the feat a dozen years earlier. His popular jockey, Calvin Borel, also emerged as a star that summer, becoming the first rider to win the Travers, Alabama, and Sword Dancer in the same meet.
Arguably the most popular equine star at Saratoga in the new millennium has been Rachel Alexandra. Ridden by Borel, the 2009 Preakness and Kentucky Oaks winner took the Spa by storm as she became the first filly to win the historic Woodward Stakes en route to being named Horse of the Year in 2009.
John Velazquez emerged as Saratoga's top jockey, winning four riding titles between 2000 and 2011. He established a Spa record with 65 wins during the 2004 season. Other riders to win multiple Saratoga titles in the new millennium to date are Hall of Famers Edgar Prado (3) and Jerry Bailey (2).
On the training side, Todd Pletcher became the new king of Saratoga, as well as the sport in general. Since 2000, Pletcher has won seven Spa training titles. He broke his own record with 38 wins during the 2011 meeting. Hall of Famer Bill Mott has topped the Saratoga leaderboard three times since 2000, and Linda Rice made history in 2009 when she became the first woman to head the trainer standings at the Spa.