04/27/2011 5:16PM

Belmont: Spring officially arrives for New York racing

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Barbara D. Livingston
In Te Domine returns from a five-month layoff in Friday's opening-day feature, the Irish Linnet for New York-bred fillies and mares.

ELMONT, N.Y. – After a winter of discontent, one in which the weather was its harshest, the quality of racing was at its lowest, and the rate of winning favorites seemed at its highest, the New York Racing Association gets a much-needed change of scenery beginning Friday with the opening of Belmont Park’s spring/summer season.

The 11-week meet, which will include 56 cards of racing, runs through July 17 before the move to Saratoga on July 22.

Though stubborn, winter has finally relented and a semblance of spring has arrived in this area, making Belmont Park seemingly look greener than ever. Provided Mother Nature doesn’t dump buckets of rain, Belmont’s two turf courses figure to be utilized early and often. There are four grass races carded on Friday’s nine-race opening-day card, though wet weather was in the forecast for Thursday. The forecast for Friday was partly cloudy skies with a high of 64 degrees and only a 20-percent chance of rain.

The inner turf course has been widened to include two more lanes, which will allow for more varied rail placements, therefore more frequent use and theoretically a less-worn surface for graded stakes events. Rail placements can be extended out as much as 36 or 40 feet. At times when the rail is out at its furthest point, races will be run at about distances, according to P.J. Campo, NYRA’s director of racing.

There are several other new things that coincide with the opening of the Belmont meet. The minimum bet on the pick four has been lowered to 50-cents from $1, which should stimulate interest in that popular wager. There is a new food court on the third-floor – Heritage Club – which will include a deli, a burger place, a pizzeria, and a Tex-Mex stand in addition to a new bar. Televisions and self-betting machines will also be installed though as of Wednesday morning, none was visible.

Train service has been restored from Penn Station to Belmont Park and those who utilize the Long Island Rail Road will get free general admission this Friday through Sunday.

Those who still find Aqueduct more accessible than Belmont will have the opportunity to wager on races from Belmont as well as simulcast tracks from Aqueduct’s fourth floor, making this the first time the Big A will be open during Belmont’s meet. NYRA officials are hopeful that simulcast wagering at Aqueduct will be as successful as the opening of the Belmont Café, which was done in December in the wake of the closure of New York City Off-Track Betting Corp.

Many of the major New York outfits that migrate south for the winter have returned or will shortly. Trainers Christophe Clement, Bill Mott, and Barclay Tagg have already sent horses to Belmont. Among the new faces expected are David Fawkes and Bob Hess Jr.

The jockey colony gets deeper with the return of John Velazquez, Alan Garcia, Alex Solis, Edgar Prado, and Rajiv Maragh to challenge Ramon Dominguez. David Cohen, injured in April, is set to return on Friday.

Belmont will host 37 stakes worth $7.8  million, topped of course by the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, on June 11. There will be 29 graded stakes, including nine Grade 1 events.

The most significant change to the program is the return of the Futurity and Matron, both Grade 2, $150,000 races for juvenile colts and fillies, respectively. Those races, traditionally run in the fall, were moved to the spring in an effort to stimulate the 2-year-old program on this circuit. Toward that end, purses for 2-year-old maiden special weight races both for open company and New York-breds are being bumped to $60,000.

During the winter, some horseplayers shied from New York, where many races became unbettable. During the five-month period beginning in December, favorites won 350 out of 816 races for an obscenely high 42.9 percent. By comparison, favorites won at 37 percent at last year’s Belmont spring meet, 36 percent at Belmont’s fall meet, and 33 percent at Saratoga.

Friday’s feature is the $60,000 Irish Linnet Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares at one mile on the turf. A field of eight was entered with an additional four designated as dirt only.

Linda Rice, who tied with David Jacobson for Aqueduct’s spring training title, brings In Te Domine back off a seven-month layoff. In Te Domine won off a six-month layoff during the early stages of Belmont’s spring meet last year. Rice said that In Te Domine bled when third to Awesome Maria in the Riskaverse Stakes here last September and again in a subsequent workout, which prompted her to stop on the filly
“Time’s a great healer,’’ Rice said. “I feel like I’d like another breeze in her, but it’s the right distance, it’s on the grass, so we’ll give it a whirl.’’

Also returning from a layoff is Chorus Music, who ended last year with two wins and two seconds on the turf for trainer John Terranova. Though she hasn’t been out since last November, Chorus Music won a first-level allowance at Belmont off an eight-month layoff last year.
Paraiba, Exclusive Scheme, and Frivolous Buck are other contenders if the race stays on turf. R Betty Graybull and Spa City Princess head the main-track only entrants.