04/29/2004 11:00PM

Belmont opener looks like a dandy


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Sunday is the last day of racing at Aqueduct, and after an abnormally long and cold winter, the opening of Belmont Park on Wednesday could not come soon enough for many racing fans and horsemen.

Belmont is certainly slated to open with a bang. The one-mile Westchester Handicap is the feature on the opening-day card, sporting a field that is significantly stronger than is normally found in a Grade 3, $100,000 stakes.

One of the expected starters is Saarland, who has been one of the best horses in New York over the last month, at least in the mornings. Saarland, a 5-year-old son of Unbridled owned and bred by Cynthia Phipps, has frequently run a notch below his well-bred hype, but in April, the horse put together three incredibly strong workouts - two of them bullets - that have had clockers at Belmont raving, including a five-furlong work on Wednesday that was timed in 58 seconds flat, galloping out in 1:10.20. Saarland did not have a reputation for especially fast workouts before April.

"He's put together three works back to back to back that are about as strong as I've ever seen him," said Buzz Tenney, the assistant to trainer Shug McGaughey, on Friday morning. "He's doing as good as he can possibly do. His coat looks good, he's put on weight. I really can't say enough about him now."

Tenney said that Saarland had surgery for an entrapped epiglottis over the winter. Since then, the horse has flourished, he said, although it took him several months to fully recover from the procedure, which is normally done on an outpatient basis, right in a horse's stall.

Saarland's last race, a $75,000 optional claiming race at Aqueduct on March 18, was typical of his frequent disappointments. Sent off at 3-5 in a five-horse field, Saarland finished fourth, beaten a total of three-quarters of a length.

"I think it just took him a while to get over the surgery," Tenney said. "At least I hope that's the case. The last race was kind of so-so, and he should have been able to handle that bunch."

Gygistar attempts stretch out to a mile

It has been nearly two years since Gygistar started in a race beyond seven furlongs. But with the return to Belmont and its sweeping one-turn mile, trainer Mark Hennig is giving Gygistar a little more room to make his off-the-pace run by stretching out the 5-year-old gelding in the Westchester.

"We're looking for a little more ground," Hennig said Friday, one day after Gygistar worked four furlongs on the Belmont main track in 47.43 seconds, the second-fastest of 40 works at that distance. "He's a little older now, and he needs the room. And he likes Belmont, he's always liked Belmont, so this looks like a really good spot."

Gygistar has not won since July 25, 2003, in a six-furlong allowance race at Saratoga. Since then, he has been fourth four times, third once, and second once, all in graded stakes races that ranged from six furlongs to seven furlongs. During that six-race skein, he has been beaten by some of the best sprinters in the country: Cajun Beat, Ghostzapper, Aldebaran, and Lion Tamer, who is also pointing to the Westchester.

Before that losing streak, Gygistar had an impressive record. He was 7 for 9, including wins in the 2002 Dwyer Stakes, a Grade 2, and that year's King's Bishop Stakes, a Grade 1. His career record now stands at 7 for 15, with two seconds and one third.

Quick turnaround, surface switch for Toccet

And then there's Toccet, another probable in the Westchester. The enigmatic 4-year-old Toccet, whose last two starts were on turf in the San Luis Rey Handicap at Santa Anita on March 20 and the Ft. Marcy Handicap at Aqueduct, will return to the dirt in the Westchester, 10 days after his last-place finish in the Fort Marcy.

Toccet was one of the most highly regarded 2-year-olds in the 2002 crop. Since then, the horse has been inconsistent, to say the least, while running against top-class company. His last seven starts have all been in graded stakes, including three Grade 1 races, but his best finish has been a second in the Grade 2 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Shake You Down aims for Bold Ruler

Belmont's opening week will also feature Shake You Down, the tremendously fast six-furlong specialist who won 7 of 13 starts in 2003 and is 3 for 4 in 2004. Trainer Scott Lake said Friday that Shake You Down is on schedule to run in the Grade 3, six-furlong Bold Ruler Handicap on Saturday on Belmont's main track.

Shake You Down's last two races have not been up to his usual standards. His Beyer Speed Figure dropped to a lowly 85 in a loss in the Hot Springs Handicap at Oaklawn, but he recovered somewhat in his next start, the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 8, earning a 102 in a hard-fought win.

Lake said the horse had been sick at Oaklawn, and was perhaps "75 percent" for the Count Fleet win. "He got real sick down at Oaklawn," Lake said. "There was just a ton of mucus. But he's back to normal now."

Shake You Down has not worked since the April 8 win. Lake said he may work the horse at Belmont before the Bold Ruler, but, on Friday, said he still had not determined a date for the workout.

The Bold Ruler will be Shake You Down's race to lose. The race will likely have a small field, and of his competition, none of the expected contenders has the class to keep up with him.

According to Andrew Byrnes, the New York Racing Association's stakes coordinator, Eoin Harty, the Southern California-based trainer, may start either Terrell, a recent one-other-than allowance winner at Santa Anita, or T S Eliot, also a recent first-level allowance winner. Terrell has posted three big Beyer Speed Figures in his three lifetime starts, including a 114 in the March 20 allowance win, which he won by seven lengths as the 3-5 favorite in a five-horse field.

* Belmont will hold a memorial service on opening day for Lefty Nickerson, the former trainer of John Henry, who died on March 26 at the age of 75. The one-hour ceremony will begin at 10 a.m., NYRA officials said.