04/30/2006 11:00PM

Belmont opens Wednesday


With a new rewards program, a new wager and a slightly new stakes schedule, 101-year-old Belmont Park kicks off its 59-day spring/summer meet on Wednesday. First post is 1 p.m. and general admission and parking will be free for opening day.

Beginning this meet, the New York Racing Association will institute a rewards program which offers rebates to customers who wager anywhere from $2,000 a month to $500,000 or more per month. The rebates range from 1 to 7 percent.

Bettors will be able to earn points toward rebates by playing NYRA's newest wager, the Grand Slam. A variation of the pick-four, the Grand Slam offers players multiple opportunities to win. In the first three legs of the wager, a bettor's horse or horses must finish first, second or third. In the final leg, a bettor's selection must win to collect. Minimum cost of the bet is $1.

Belmont's 59-day season includes a bevy of traditional stakes races, topped by the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, to be run this year on June 10. NYRA has tinkered with the stakes schedule somewhat, eliminating the Flash and Fashion for juveniles and juvenile fillies, respectively, and moving the Brooklyn Handicap to the fall.

Also, the NYRA has honored the memory of Woody Stephens - the only trainer to win five consecutive Belmont Stakes - by renaming the Riva Ridge the Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Handicap. The Grade 2 seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds, run on Belmont Day, also received a purse bump from $200,000 to $250,000.

Several other stakes, however, received purse cuts. The Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap was slashed from $750,000 to $600,000 while the Suburban went from $500,000 to $400,000. The Shuvee and Mother Goose, each had their purses cut by $50,000. NYRA added two divisions of the New York Stallion Stakes for 3-year-olds and 3-year-old fillies. Each race will be worth $100,000.

All totaled, Belmont will offer 38 stakes worth $7,750,000.

The jockey colony will have a different look to it this year. With Jerry Bailey retired and John Velazquez likely to miss most of the meet with a broken shoulder, former California-based riders Garrett Gomez, Kent Desormeaux and Mike Smith will be in the room joining regulars Edgar Prado, Javier Castellano, Eibar Coa and Cornelio Velasquez.

A few years ago NYRA brought back Sunset racing on Fridays when first post would be 3 p.m. Belmont won't start that this year until June 16. Also, Belmont will close on a Saturday rather than a Sunday to give horsemen more time to prepare for Saratoga, which begins July 26.

The opening day card is topped by the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Handicap, which drew a solid field including two-time defending Westchester winner Gygistar, 2004 Pennsylvania Derby winner Love of Money, and Carter runner-up Sir Greeley.

Sir Greeley has lost a pair of neck decisions in the Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Handicap at Gulfstream and the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct last out. He stretches out to a one-turn mile, a distance at which he is 3 for 4.

"I thought being so far back and taking all that mud got him beat the other day; it was just terrible," said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. "He's come out of the race good. He had a real nice work on the main track the other day."

Love of Money has not raced since finishing last in the Met Mile last May. He bore out badly in the race and later in the year was diagnosed with an ankle injury that did not require surgery, simply plenty of rest. Love of Money has run some exceptional races including an allowance win preceding the Met Mile and his victory in the 2004 Pennsylvania Derby.

"If Love of Money runs his race he's going to be the horse to beat," trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. said. "He's got more talent than those horses. I wish I had two more weeks but I don't and I don't mind running him there."

Prado rides Love of Money from post 7.