04/24/2013 2:10PM

Belmont Park: Changes in the air as spring meet opens

Coady Photography/Keeneland
Joel Rosario comes into Belmont with a lot of momentum following a powerful Keeneland meet.

ELMONT, N.Y. – When racing last convened at Belmont Park, Revolutionary was getting beat at 1-5 in a maiden race, Ramon Dominguez was wrapping up another riding title, and a devastating storm was just hours away from landfall.

When racing reconvenes at Belmont Park on Friday, Revolutionary will be in Louisville preparing for the Kentucky Derby, Ramon Dominguez will still be recovering from a head injury suffered in a January spill, and, hopefully, the only Sandy people will be talking about is Big Sandy.

Belmont escaped last October’s Superstorm Sandy relatively unscathed. On the frontside of the facility, a canopy along the walkway leading into the clubhouse was destroyed and not replaced.

While on the subject of not replaced, the New York Racing Association has yet to hire a president and CEO to replace Charles Hayward, who was fired on May 4, 2012. Ellen McClain, then the COO, has served as acting president and CEO in the interim, but she leaves the company next Tuesday having announced her resignation earlier this year.

Dr. David Skorton, chairman of the NYRA Reorganization Board, is leading the search for a new president and CEO. At the April 11 board meeting, he classified the search as “rounding second” and said he hoped he could have a hire in June. Meanwhile, Skorton is expected to announce an interim management team as early as next week.

The quality of racing from Aqueduct to Belmont usually increases significantly with the return from south Florida of powerhouse stables from Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, and Shug McGaughey.

A new face to the backside this spring will be John Shirreffs, he of Zenyatta fame, who arrived Monday from Southern California with 20 head, including Zenyatta’s half-sister Eblouissante. Shirreffs said 10 more will ship here in early May. Mike Maker, who set a meet record for wins at Keeneland, is expected to have 36 head in New York this spring as well.

Dominguez has won the last four Belmont spring/summer riding titles, averaging 78 wins per season since 2009. Dominguez, who suffered a brain injury in a spill at Aqueduct on Jan. 18, has not yet received clearance to ride from his doctors and is not scheduled to visit them again until June.

John Velazquez, Belmont’s spring/summer meet leading rider from 2001-04, suffered a fractured rib in an April 7 spill at Aqueduct. He plans on returning next Wednesday, but will likely accept limited mounts the first few weeks.

Javier Castellano, the leading rider at Gulfstream, may rate a slight favorite to win this spring’s riding title. But he will be challenged by Joel Rosario, who was second at Gulfstream and is having a tremendous Keeneland meet. Luis Saez, who moved his tack from Florida and went 8 for 41 during Aqueduct’s spring meet, also could vie for leading honors.

Purse levels that seemed flat at Aqueduct are back to where they were last spring at Belmont, with maidens running for $70,000 and overnight stakes ranging from $85,000 to $90,000.

The stakes schedule is solid with 37 stakes – 26 graded – worth $9.3 million being offered during the 56-day meet that runs through July 14. The Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, highlights the schedule. It will be run June 8 along with the Manhattan, Just a Game, True North, and Woody Stephens.

The Memorial Day (May 27) card is sensational with three Grade 1 races, including the Metropolitan Handicap, Acorn, and Ogden Phipps.

Belmont has added a second New York Showcase Day to go along with the traditional one run in October. Seven stakes restricted to New York-breds will be run June 1.

“The purses are there, we just need a little luck with the weather,” said P.J. Campo, NYRA’s vice president/director of racing. “With good weather, we’ll have a decent meet. Having Shirreffs helps and Maker will have a full presence. We’ll see how it goes.”

The forecast for opening weekend calls for mostly sunny skies with temperatures in the low 60s.