09/07/2004 11:00PM

All eyes on New York stakes

Ghostzapper, who earned the highest Beyer Speed Figure of the year, heads a six-horse field for Saturday's Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The second-best six weeks of action on the New York Racing Association calendar - technically 6 1/2 weeks - commences Friday with the opening of the 33-day fall meeting at Belmont Park.

Coming off a solid, if not spectacular, Saratoga session, New York racing returns to Belmont on a five-day-a-week basis through Oct. 24. Some of the more traditional and most prestigious races run on this circuit will be conducted during the next six weeks, as the East Coast horses try to position themselves for runs at divisional titles and berths in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, to be held Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park.

With Santa Anita not scheduled to start until Sept. 29 and Keeneland not until Oct. 8, the focus of the racing world will be at Belmont, where 39 stakes - including 13 Grade 1's - totaling $10.5 million will be held. An international flavor is always present this time of year, and several European-based horses are already on the grounds, some for this weekend's quartet of Grade 1 events.

Mother Nature has already made an impact, dumping more than three inches of rain in this area Wednesday, with more expected Thursday. That prompted the racing office to delay the start of turf racing until Saturday. Friday's nine-race program is highlighted by the $100,000 General Douglas MacArthur Stakes for New York-bred colts and geldings. Though the forecast is for dry conditions Friday, the races are likely to be run under wet-track conditions.

There are several big-event days at the meet, beginning with Saturday's card, which contains three Grade 1 races led by the $500,000 Woodward Stakes. Ghostzapper and Midway Road, the two handicap horses who have posted the highest Beyer Speed Figures in the country this year, head the expected six-horse field. Stellar Jayne, the Mother Goose winner, heads the Gazelle for 3-year-old fillies, while Grade 1 winners Better Talk Now and Request for Parole top the Man o' War, scheduled for 1 3/8 miles on turf.

Another trio of graded events will be offered on Sept. 19, led by the Grade 1 Ruffian (moved from Sept. 18 to accommodate ABC Sports). The Grade 1 Matron and the downgraded Grade 2 Futurity are also on that bill.

East Coast horses can get in their final Breeders' Cup preps on Oct. 2 or Oct. 9, depending what division they're in. The $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup, expected to attract last year's dual-classic winner Funny Cide, heads the Oct. 2 card. That day also includes the $750,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, a race named in honor of the legendary Daily Racing Form columnist who retired last year; the $750,000 Flower Bowl Invitational; and the $500,000 Vosburgh.

On Oct. 9, Sightseek, Storm Flag Flying, and Society Selection could do battle in the $750,000 Beldame. That day also includes the $500,000 Champagne for 2-year-old colts, the Frizette for 2-year-old fillies, and the $350,000 Kelso Breeders' Cup for turf milers.

The likelihood of a wet track and the presence of John Velazquez in the irons give Finger Lakes shipper Top Shoter the look of the horse to beat in Friday's MacArthur Handicap at seven furlongs.

Top Shoter, owned and trained by Charlton Baker, is 4 for 6 over a wet track, including a 3 1/2-length victory against open company two starts back at Saratoga. Baker also said that Top Shoter is over a chronic shin problem that bothered him throughout most of his career.

"A wet track is a plus," Baker said. "A dry track right now, the way he's running, the way he's training - it doesn't matter, to tell you the truth.''

The biggest threats to Top Shoter are Clever Electrician and Spite the Devil. Clever Electrician comes off a win in the restricted John Morrissey Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 10. He could be a pace factor under Ramon Dominguez.

Spite the Devil returns to the dirt after finishing last in the West Point Handicap on turf. Spite the Devil closed out the Belmont spring meet by winning the Evan Shipman Stakes. He would benefit from a pace duel but is 0 for 3 on wet surfaces.

General admission and general parking are free on opening day.

Belmont fall meet highlights

Sept. 11Woodward$500,000
Sept. 11Man o' War$500,000
Sept. 11Gazelle$250,000
Sept. 12Garden City Breeders' Cup$300,000
Sept. 19Ruffian$300,000
Sept. 19Matron$300,000
Sept. 19Futurity$300,000
Oct. 2Jockey Club Gold Cup$1 million
Oct. 2Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational$750,000
Oct. 2Flower Bowl Invitational$750,000
Oct. 2Vosburgh$500,000
Oct. 9Beldame$750,000
Oct. 9Champagne$500,000
Oct. 9Frizette$500,000
Oct. 9Kelso$350,000

Note: All races are Grade 1 except for the Futurity and Kelso