04/30/2008 1:19PM

Picks Day


It happens every spring: the return of racing to its grandest stage, a rite of renewal that has been going on for more than a century. I speak, of course, not of the Kentucky Derby but of Opening Day at Belmont Park.

I'm still hoping to get over there today for the last few races, since that was sort of the point of moving from Manhattan to just 5.1 miles from the Belmont clubhouse entrance 22 years ago. There are supposed to be some customer-friendly upgrades to the place worth seeing, as is the featured Westchester Handicap, with Grasshopper a legit 3-5 in his Met Mile tuneup against Divine Park, Sightseeing, Mr. Umphrey, Miner's Lamp and Saint Damon. The rest of the card, however, is not exactly scintillating: It beguins with three straight five-horse claiming races, and two of the day's four scheduled grass races have been moved to the main track due to heavy rain here Monday.

If I end up watching from home, I have my cable-tv choice of the pure simulcast feed via Nassau County OTB on Channel 74 or TVG coverage on Channel 402. I'm on 402 at the moment because there hasn't been any sound on the OTB feed since it started more than an ahour ago, and video keeps flickering and changing from color to black and white. But at least in theory, I have two more options than simulcast players in 16 other states will have. Belmont has yet to strike deals with the Midlantic and Southern cooperatives negotiating on behalf of tracks in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Blackouts seem to be the theme of what's supposed to be racing's week in the sun. Just three days before post time, it's still unclear whether many account-wagering customers will be able to bet on the full Derby card, and no one outside of Florida is able to bet on Calder, where purses have already been cut 30 percent and the handle on Sunday's late pick four was all of $7,086.

If I don't make it over to Belmont, it will be because today is Picks Day at DRF, which means I have to make my 1-2-3-4 consensus-box Derby choices and write a column for Saturday's paper by 6:30 p.m tonight. I'm probably making it more complicated than it needs to be but here's what I'm wrestling with: I want to (and probably will) pick Big Brown because I think he's a sensationally talented horse and I'm rooting that he's really as good as he's suggested he could be. On the other hand, I think a horse making his fourth career start in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby is a highly unattractive wagering proposition as the 5-2/3-1 favorite and I can't imagine betting a dime to win on him. So maybe I'm supposed to put him second or third behind horses I think offer more value, like Pyro at 8-1 or Tale of Ekati at 20-1.

I've got five hours to make up my mind. Perhaps a Belmont run will bring everything into focus.

[Update 6:50 pm:] Made it out to Belmont for the 6th through the 8th and felt better for it. Everyone seemed in a pretty good mood from the change of scenery, which is what seven straight months of Aqueduct can do to you. There's a new hospitality desk at the clubhouse entrance where employees actually greet you when you walk in, and some nice new flatscreen tv's scattered around the plant, but the most dramatic change is the graphics package on the simulcast signal, which seems sharper and bolder.

Trainer Billy Turner, who had won only 16 races in the previous 16 months, sent out three straight winners in the 4th, 5th and 6th, scoring with 8-1 Cloud Nine, 32-1 Drift King and 5-2 Just Zip It, for a $1,620 Turner-Turner-Turner pick three. Add "Turner on April 30ths" to your book of angles: On April 30, 2005, he won the 5th and 6th at Aqueduct.

Divine Park won the Westchester by five in a snappy 1:32.74, final quarter in 23.60, with Grasshopper an indifferent second and Sightseeing a rallying third.

Nobody picked six or even five so there's a $36k carryover into day two.

Derby 1-2-3-4 selections? Big Brown, Pyro, Tale of Ekati, Monba.