10/21/2007 11:00PM

Anxious time for Big A opener

EmailOZONE PARK, N.Y. - Sixty-nine days and counting.

That's how many days remain in the calendar year as of Wednesday and, in turn, how long the New York Racing Association has the franchise to run racing at this state's three biggest Thoroughbred tracks.

One day after NYRA concluded a successful Saratoga season, Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced that he would recommend that NYRA retain the franchise for another 30 years. That recommendation has met some resistance with the state legislature - more specifically with Sen. Joe Bruno - and has yet to be approved.

Now, as the NYRA prepares to open Aqueduct on Wednesday, the enthusiasm that permeated the beginning of the Belmont meet has turned to trepidation as the franchise issue continues to be debated. Meanwhile, a frustrated NYRA president Charlie Hayward has begun sounding the alarm that, barring a favorable resolution to NYRA, there could be a stoppage of racing come Jan. 1.

"The things that we control we're working really hard at," said Hayward, who mentioned several cosmetic improvements to the Big A designed to enhance the ontrack experience. "It's just those other things that are making things very murky. I wish I had a clearer view of where this road is taking us. There's still that enthusiasm, but the [sense] of the unknown keeps you up a little later at night than it might otherwise have."

"Is the anxiety level up? Absolutely," said trainer Rick Violette, head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. "Everybody would like to get this thing done, but you'd like to make sure everything's done the right way."

Meanwhile, with 400,000 square feet of freshly painted halls, a completely made-over box-seat area, and a new simulcast room, Aqueduct opens its fall meeting on Wednesday (first post 1 p.m.) for the first of 25 scheduled cards to be run over the main track. Aqueduct's winterized inner dirt track is scheduled to open on Nov. 28.

Daily purses will increase by approximately 12 percent, or $43,800, per day to an average of $408,800 through Dec. 31.

The main track portion of the fall meet includes 19 traditional stakes with purses totaling $2.415 million. The highlight of the meet is the Nov. 22 card, which features four graded stakes topped by the $350,000 Cigar Mile, the only Grade 1 of the meet. The $200,000 Remsen for juvenile colts and the $200,000 Demoiselle for juvenile fillies will be joined by the $100,000 Discovery Handicap for 3-year-old, a race originally carded for this Saturday.

Aqueduct's main track has come under scrutiny the past two years for its inability to handle the elements, but Violette - who maintains a large string of horses at the Big A year-round - has been extremely happy with the surface for the last several months.

"The track this summer and fall has been terrific," he said. "It's been very consistent; it's had a lot of life to it. Most mornings you can't hear them gallop over it."

The opening-day feature is a second-level allowance race for 3-year-olds and up at one mile that carries a purse of $58,000. Merchant Marine, unbeaten in two starts for Allen Jerkens, heads the field. He has won a pair of one-mile races by narrow margins, showing some true grit in each race.

"He was surprising the first time, then he ran almost the same kind of race next time," Jerkens said. "He never worked all that great."

Jerkens said owner John Fort wanted to run him in Saturday's $250,000 Pegasus Handicap on the Breeders' Cup undercard at Monmouth Park, but Jerkens thought the horse would appreciate another race before taking on stakes company.

"If he can beat these, then we can try for the Discovery," Jerkens said.