10/23/2006 12:00AM

Dark clouds threaten as fall meet begins

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EQUI-PHOTO
Master of Disaster will help ensure a swift pace in the opening-day Discovery Handicap.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Once upon a time, the opening of the 2006 Aqueduct fall meet was going to be a momentous occasion. New York Racing Association officials were hopeful that Wednesday's opening of the fall meet would coincide with the opening of its casino, which was to have included 4,500 slot machines.

The revenue from the slots would help spike an increase in purses that would not only ease the acrimony between horsemen and management, but would presumably bring a higher quality product to the Big A, which will be the home of New York racing for the next six months.

But unlike most fairy tales, this one does not have a happy ending. Though slot machines are up and running at seven tracks in New York state, they are a mere rumor at Aqueduct.

"On the [slot machine] side of our operation, we've gone from optimistic to pessimistic," said Bill Nader, senior vice president for NYRA. "On the racing side we're still on solid footing.''

Thus, Aqueduct's fall meet opens amid the specter of NYRA on the verge of filing for bankruptcy unless the state releases $19 million in loans it had promised to NYRA 10 months ago. NYRA officials have not yet set a timetable to file for bankruptcy, but speculation has it happening as early as the end of this month.

"We are looking at all of our options, but the plays in our playbook are getting fewer and fewer,'' Nader said. "We will make sure, regardless of what we do, that we protect our race dates and our purses that we pay to our horsemen.''

Money isn't the only thing on short supply at NYRA. Parking will be at a premium as the 1,500-space lot on the clubhouse side of the track has been taken over by the Port Authority and fenced off. Fans now must park on the grandstand side. NYRA has gone as far as to terminate its popular flea market that operated three days a week in the grandstand parking lot.

The first 25 cards of racing at Aqueduct will be run over the main track before racing shifts to the winterized inner track on Nov. 29. The main-track portion of the meet will include 20 stakes worth $2.565 million. The highlight will be Nov. 25 when Aqueduct conducts three stakes, including the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, featuring the undefeated 3-year-old Discreet Cat. The Remsen, for 2-year-olds, is expected to include Champagne runner-up Nobiz Like Shobiz. The $200,000 Demoiselle for juvenile fillies is also run that day.

Stakes action begins Wednesday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Discovery Handicap for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles over the main track. A field of six was entered, led by On Board Again, runner-up in the Grade 3 Pegasus at the Meadowlands, and Valid Notebook, runner-up to Discreet Cat in the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap.

On Board Again, a son of Awesome Again, has won 2 of 4 starts and ran second to Diamond Stripes in the Pegasus, his first try around two turns. In that race, On Board Again rated on the inside before making a four-wide bid approaching the stretch. He lost momentum in the stretch and was beaten 1 1/2 lengths.

Valid Notebook has proven to be more than a useful claim for owner Paul Pompa and trainer Pat Reynolds. He has 2 wins and 2 seconds since being claimed from Stanley Hough for $62,500, and was the only one to even get close to Discreet Cat early in the Jerome. Reynolds was pleased with the fact his horse made multiple runs at Discreet Cat before finishing a well-beaten second. He did finish 7 1/4 lengths clear of the rest of the field.

Indian Hawke, Champ Safi, and Master of Disaster should supply ample speed in the race.

Roman Dynasty, a son of Theatrical trained by Todd Pletcher, will likely be stalking the pace under John Velazquez. He comes off a second-place finish behind Valid Notebook in a second-level allowance race at Belmont on Sept. 9.

"He's a rare Theatrical who seems to be better on dirt than turf,'' Pletcher said. "The last race was a little short than what is ideal for him. I'm pleased with the way he's trained up to this. Two turns and a mile and an eighth should suit him well.''