Updated on 09/16/2011 7:51AM

Annual rejuvenation time at Spa


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The stock market is in a free fall, a baseball strike is looming, heck, even Tiger Woods can't shoot straight.

For the New York Racing Association, however, these are not troubled times. Coming off a year of increased business at its three racetracks, NYRA is set to open its marquee meeting Wednesday as Saratoga commences its 134th season. A 10-race card, highlighted by the $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes, begins at 1 p.m.

Last summer, Saratoga enhanced its reputation as the biggest race meet in the country, as attendance broke the million mark for the first time and total handle averaged $15.5 million a day.

NYRA officials are hoping for another record-setting meet, but must battle a weakening economy that could keep figures down. Beginning with last year's Saratoga meet, NYRA did its part to help the consumer by lowering the takeout on wagers. Barry Schwartz, NYRA's chairman, believes that is the biggest reason NYRA has posted gains in handle at each of its meets since then and is looking to make even more cuts down the road. Thus far, NYRA has returned $37 million back to the bettors.

"It clearly works," Schwartz said. "Anybody that doesn't recognize it, doesn't understand the game."

Saratoga will host 35 stakes - including 13 Grade 1 events - with purses totaling $8.775 million. The marquee event is the $1 million Travers for 3-year-olds to be run on Aug. 24. Last year, a Travers Day record crowd of 60,486 saw Point Given's final race en route to Horse of the Year honors. Plans for this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem are now in flux after the sudden death of his owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, on Monday in Saudi Arabia.

The most highly anticipated race of this year's meet is likely to be the $750,000 Whitney Handicap on Aug. 3. Last year's winner, Lido Palace, is expected to run against Street Cry, the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster Handicap winner; Macho Uno, the 2000 Juvenile champion; and multiple Grade 1 winner Left Bank.

There could be a changing of the guard among the leading trainers and jockeys. Jerry Bailey set a Spa record by winning 55 races here last summer as he won his seventh title in the last eight years. Bailey's fortunes are very much tied in with Bill Mott, who last year won his eighth title in the last 10 years. Mott, however, may not be as strong as he has been in years past.

Conversely, Velazquez's fortunes are very much tied in with Todd Pletcher, whose meet-leading 30 wins - including nine 2-year-old maiden victories - were the most for a Belmont spring/summer meet since Gary Sciacca won 31 in 1993. Despite running 115 horses at Belmont, Pletcher feels he is well-stocked to make a run at the Saratoga title he won in 1998.

"We're still holding a pretty live hand," Pletcher said. "Though we broke a lot of maidens we still have some 2-year-olds that haven't run yet. We've got some 2-year-olds that ran second, third, or fourth first time that look like they can move forward next out."

Trainers Bobby Frankel and Steve Asmussen spiced up last year's meet and should do the same this year as both have been allotted more stalls. Dale Romans, who won his third straight Churchill Downs trainer's title, Chuck Simon, Elliott Walden, John Ward, and Dallas Stewart head the list of Kentucky-based horsemen here again this summer. Newcomers include Bob Hess Jr. and Eoin Harty.

Stakes action begins with the Schuylerville, a six-furlong race for juvenile fillies. A field of nine was entered, however, trainer Patrick Biancone said Stellar would not run.

Mike's Wildcat, who won the Astoria by eight lengths, makes her first start for new connections John Oxley and John Ward, who purchased the filly last week.

"This is like going on a blind date," Ward said. "You learn as you go along."

Miss Mary Apples was only beaten a head to undefeated Holiday Runner in the Fashion Stakes at Belmont on June 6. Trainer Mark Hubley said the Schuylerville was his main objective and is expecting a big performance Wednesday.

"I didn't think we had her that fit for the last race and it was a speed-favoring track and she closed a lot of ground late," Hubley said. "It's every exciting especially with these longer races."

Kentucky shipper Vibs and Florida shipper Crimson and Roses could offer the most value in the race.

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