05/03/2005 11:00PM

Centennial celebration under way

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Gygistar, Javier Castellano riding, wins the Westchester Handicap.

ELMONT, N.Y. - "After 100 years, they're still off at Belmont!"

With that call by track announcer Tom Durkin as the gates opened for Wednesday's first race, Belmont Park's centennial anniversary was underway.

Under partly sunny skies on a slightly chilly afternoon, the 60-day spring-summer meet began on a festive note, with free parking and grandstand admission, Daily Racing Forms for $1, discounts on food and drink, and race calls from former and current New York Racing Association announcers Marshall Cassidy, John Imbriale, John Dooley, and Larry Collmus.

Opening day also ushered in the operation of NYRA's two new race-day security barns, where horses must report for a minimum of six hours before racing.

"I saw a couple waves [of horses] come in, and I think it went remarkably smoothly," said Charlie Hayward, president and CEO of NYRA, of the new pre-race procedures. "There is no playbook to go by, but things went well. We are working collaboratively with trainers to make things as easy and palatable as possible. [Trainer] Steve Young came up to me and said, 'If NYRA was a stock, I'd buy it.'"

Hayward said one of the security barns runs parallel to the training track, and some horses who could see morning workout activity were getting overly excited.

"We have to do something to impede their view, but that should be solved by [Thursday]," he said.

Trainer Richard DeStasio saddled first-race winner Rodeo Spirit ($10.80). "I left my barn at 6:45 to be in the security barn by seven," he said. "I had to hire an extra person, and it is a long day for the backstretch help. But we won today, and that made everything worthwhile. In the long run, this will bring people back and give the bettors some confidence."

Attendance was 9,068, a significant increase over last year's opening-day crowd of 6,368.

Gygistar wins another Westchester

Gygistar, who won the Westchester Handicap on opening day a year ago, circled wide approaching the stretch and outfinished Swingforthefences for a repeat victory in the Grade 3 mile race.

The Mark Hennig-trained Gygistar relaxed off fast early fractions of 22.43 seconds, 44.61, and 1:08.93 set by even-money favorite Value Plus, surged to the front coming to midstretch, and kicked clear under Javier Castellano to win by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:33.50 over a fast track.

"He loves this track," said Hennig. "This makes us think about holding off and waiting for the Brooklyn Handicap [Belmont Stakes Day, June 11]. I knew Value Plus liked Gulfstream, and I knew we liked Belmont, so I was a little more confident today."

Swingforthefences steadied attempting to rally between horses at the quarter pole, and once clear finished well to beat the rest. Value Plus tired but held third, and is now 0 for 8 in graded stakes, five of the losses coming as the favorite.

Unforgettable Max finished fourth, followed by Seeking the Glory, Kennel Up, and Wando.

Gygistar, 6, the oldest member of the field, returned $7.80 to win as the second choice in a field of seven older males, and improved to 10 for 26 lifetime.

He earned $65,700 from the $109,500 purse, increasing his career earnings to $955,905 for owner/breeder Edward P. Evans.

Twilight racing Friday

Friday is the first of 11 twilight racing Fridays at the meet. First-race post time is 3 p.m. on all Fridays except for June 10, the day before the Belmont Stakes.

The featured eighth race is a third-level allowance with an optional claiming price of $75,000, scheduled for 1 1/8 miles on the inner turf. Seven older males were entered for turf, and four for the main track only.

If the race remains on the grass, Cacht Wells, who earned a lifetime top Beyer Speed Figure of 93 finishing third in his seasonal bow at Gulfstream Park, may be a slight favorite in a wide-open race with Palique, Rahy's Chance, and Full Flow, who also ran well at Gulfstream.

Palique, a last-out winner at Keeneland, may contest the early pace with Royal Affirmed, who is a four-time winner on Belmont turf.

Also entered for turf are Dr. Rockett and Strive.

The third race is the first juvenile dash of the meet. Maryland-based trainer Tim Salzman, who won both baby races run at Aqueduct, may have the one to beat in Big Strike, who recently worked a bullet three-eighths from the gate at Laurel.

Also in the five-horse field is the Todd Pletcher-trained Black Snake, fourth at even money in his debut at Keeneland.