The long-anticipated 2021 Saratoga Meet opens Thursday, headlined by a familiar name — Golden Pal — making his seasonal debut. The standout sophomore sprinter anchors a deep field of 3-year-olds in the Grade 3 Quick Call.

Golden Pal-Quick Call
Golden Pal makes his 3-year-old debut Thursday on Saratoga’s opening day as the 1/2 morning-line favorite in the Grade 3 Quick Call. (Image: Coolmore)

That 5 ½-furlong sprint on the Mellon Turf Course is one of two stakes races on The Spa’s opening-day, 10-race slate. The Grade 3 Schylerville is the other. It sends its 2-year-old fillies six furlongs on Saratoga’s main track.

After Saratoga ran in front of empty stands, suites, and aprons last year, officials could run maiden claimers on Thursday, and the buzz would be there. The Spa’s 153rd season opens with fans returning to the upstate New York track after sitting out last year due to the pandemic. Obeying state mandates forbidding large gatherings, the New York Racing Association closed the door to everyone last year except for participants, owners, essential workers, and a small media contingent.

This year, the fans are back with a four-day weekend slate welcoming them. Starting next week, Saratoga runs Wednesdays through Sundays until the final week of the meet.

Quick Call is the perfect name for this race

Thursday’s Quick Call, named after the legendary graded-stakes-winning gelding who registered nine of his 16 victories at Saratoga, gives the people what they want; a serious field of speedsters and stakes winners in an all-out cavalry charge on turf.

Well … hold that last thought. Rain fell on the Saratoga Springs area over the past two days, which could prompt the NYRA to give the Quick Call the quick hook from the turf. That would likely decimate what is a quality field, starting with Golden Pal. Trainer Wesley Ward told the Daily Racing Form that if the race comes off the turf, he’ll scratch Golden Pal.

That, in turn, would extend what is already an 8 ½-month layoff. The 1/2 favorite, Golden Pal comes into his 2021 debut 2-for-3 on the grass. Prominent among his four races is his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf victory last November at Keeneland where he ran to his 4/5 odds, beating Cowan by three-quarters of a length.

Golden Pal is every bettor’s pal

The Uncle Mo colt has never finished out of the exacta in four starts (2-2-0), including in his maiden-breaking score in the Skidmore Stakes last summer at Saratoga. His runner-up debut in a Gulfstream Park maiden in April 2020 came on the dirt.

Golden Pal’s second runner-up came at Royal Ascot in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes. That result came on heavy, soggy turf and Ward said that if today’s race stays on the turf, Golden Pal will stay put, regardless of the conditions.

And why not? Golden Pal clocked three bullet workouts in his last four works, dating to a June 13 47.40-second clocking at Churchill Downs that was the fastest of nine going four furlongs. His last work came July 8 on Belmont Park’s inner turf course. It was a 51.8-second, four-furlong breeze.

“He’s doing really well. We’re excited about him,” Ward told the NYRA. “I think he’ll be the best horse I ever had, but we’ll see if it comes out that way. He does things in the mornings that are just so impressive. He’s just an immensely talented horse and we’re looking forward to getting his season started here at Saratoga on Opening Day. Hopefully, that leads into the Breeders’ Cup at the end of the year.”

One familiar name could tarnish Golden Pal’s return

Waiting for Golden Pal — if the Quick Call stays green — are stakes winners Second of July, Omaha City, and Kentucky Pharoah. Second of July won the Grade 3 Belmont Futurity. He then finished 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint after getting hit in the face with a clod of turf. Second of July’s 3-year-old debut found him seventh in a June Belmont Park race after getting bumped coming out of the gate.

But Golden Pal’s biggest threat comes from a familiar name, Jaxon Traveler. The 3/1 second choice hasn’t missed an exacta (4-3-0) in his seven starts. And, like Golden Pal, Jaxon Traveler owns multiple stakes titles. The Maryland-bred won the Maryland Juvenile Futurity at Laurel Park last year, and won the Bachelor at Oaklawn Park in April.

The son of Munnings finished second in his last two starts, the Grade 3 Chick Lang at Pimlico and the Woodstock at Woodbine. In the latter, Jaxon Traveler finished second to Outadore on Woodbine’s Tapeta track.

But he surrenders one significant advantage to Golden Pal: this is Jaxon Traveler’s first taste of turf in his career.