07/26/2006 11:00PM

Elite to meet at Saratoga

They're off at Saratoga, for 36 days of top-level racing and 32 graded stakes.

Saratoga's 2006 racing season began on July 26 with a stakes race scheduled for every one of its 36 racing days through Labor Day, Sept. 4.

The $10.3 million program features 32 graded stakes, including the $1 million Travers on Aug. 26 and 14 other Grade 1's. But what really distinguishes the Spa from all other race meets in this country is that several dozen races will be run for the best bred 2-year-olds in the land.

Although races for juveniles have been in progress since April, the Saratoga meet in the East and Del Mar in the West occur at the perfect point on the calendar where well-bred juveniles with more long-term upside usually are ready to surpass the precocious 4 1/2- and five-furlong types.

Indeed, the Saratoga 2-year-old program has been sensibly reconfigured to include three, not two, graded stakes for 2-year-old fillies and three others for 2-year-old males, at six furlongs, 6 1/2, and seven furlongs, after the New York Racing Association eliminated both 6 1/2-furlong stakes the past two seasons.

While the six-furlong Schuylerville for fillies and the Sanford for males early in the meet are natural targets for the top outfits that already unveiled contenders during the spring, the mid-meet stakes and the seven-furlong Spinaway and Hopeful on the final weekend usually are dominated by youngsters who graduated impressively during the first 10 days of the meet.

As usual, two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher will have more than a dozen royally bred youngsters ready to roll. In recent years Pletcher has been a prolific winner with juvenile first-time starters and has won his share of the 2-year-old stakes.

This year, the most precocious Pletcher trainee unveiled to date is Circular Quay, winner of the six-furlong Bashford Manor at Churchill on July 8 with a whirlwind late rally that suggested he might be capable of handling longer and stronger. Circular Quay is only one of Pletcher's many stakes-quality youngsters; my guess is he will win a handful of maiden races for juveniles during the first two weeks of the meet. Some are sure to be prospects for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile or Juvenile Fillies, or the 2007 Triple Crown.

That notwithstanding, it is almost impossible to make serious money wagering on Pletcher's heavily bet babies unless they are used as singles in multi-race wagers or as key horses in tandem with longshots in the single-race exotics. Thus it is imperative to keep an eye out for the many fit youngsters trained by other top horsemen who target this meet.

Watch out specifically for Bobby Frankel, Shug McGaughey, Richard Violette, both Allen and Jimmy Jerkens, Patrick Biancone, John Kimmel, and Stanley Hough, all of whom are exceedingly tough with their primary juveniles - as is Eoin Harty, who along with Frankel, will have some top 2-year-olds at Saratoga this year.

Meanwhile, the status of Steve Asmussen's potent barn is unclear. Normally a high percentage threat with his juveniles, Asmussen is in the midst of a six-month suspension for a drug violation in New Mexico. To what extent this will have on the performances of his horses is a handicapping issue needing closer scrutiny, but the Saratoga meet could provide better prices for his assistant Scott Blasi, and perhaps at the same high win rate Asmussen usually achieves.

Nick Zito, who usually focuses on stakes and allowance races for his 3-year-olds, and Billy Mott, one of the premier turf trainers in the history of racing, also tend to unveil sharp 2-year-olds at this meet. Although both trainers are statistically more potent with second-time starters, both have scored with several newcomers during recent seasons.

Players seeking more details about these trainers, including many of the specific horses they have under their care, would do well to consult breeding columnist Lauren Stich's Saratoga juvenile profiles published in Daily Racing Form's annual Saratoga Players' Guide.

In addition to the rich stakes schedule and the 2-year-old program, Saratoga also can be a terrific meet for spotting live longshots on the turf from two different sources:

* Trainers who ship in from Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia for specific maiden and allowance races.

* Trainers who excel with turf absentees.

Every year, horses from a handful of barns on the Mid-Atlantic circuit provide extra value in Saratoga turf races. The most prolific of these shippers usually come from trainers Michael Matz, Katherine Voss, Graham Motion, Michael Gorham, and Hamilton Smith.

Likewise, absentees trained by Mott, Christophe Clement, Frankel, Motion, Biancone, Anthony Reinstedler, James Toner, Tim Ritchey, Tim Ritvo, Thomas Skiffington, Dale Romans, and Wally Dollase always deserve close scrutiny in comeback situations.

This season also marks the first Saratoga meet in which a new pecking order of leading jockeys will be settled in the absence of retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey.

Defending Saratoga meet champ Edgar Prado and John Velazquez, the 2004 meet winner who rides first call for Pletcher, certainly will be prominent. But there will be more opportunities for value this year with horses ridden by Eibar Coa, the leading rider in New York this year; Javier Castellano and Cornelio Velasquez, who regularly ride for Mott, Zito, and Richard Dutrow Jr., among others; plus Kentucky-based Rafael Bejarano, Delaware-based Ramon Dominguez, and the vastly improved apprentice Julien Leparoux, who hardly looked the part of a top rider when introduced to New York at last year's meet by trainer Patrick Biancone.

In less than a year, Leparoux has blossomed into one of the best turf riders in America and comes to Saratoga off winning the Churchill Downs meet title over Bejarano, who in his own right is one of the brightest rising stars in the sport.

Dominguez, a versatile pro based at Delaware Park, has ridden successfully in several New York stints, including Saratoga. Anytime he is aboard a shipper from the Delaware Valley tracks, a close look is warranted.

Bejarano, now a popular fixture in Kentucky, also has developed positive connections with Saratoga regulars, including Zito, Dutrow, and Romans. But it pays to give him a close look when he's riding an interesting longshot for a Kentucky-based trainer, such as Charles Simon.

As a footnote to the grass racing program at Saratoga, last year there were fewer than a dozen turf sprints; this year there will be more, weather permitting.

While early speed seemed to dominate turf sprints at Belmont, the extremely hot weather that has included its share of heavy rainstorms during the six weeks leading up to this meet has produced a plush turf course that might provide for races to be won more often from off the pace.

As a final handicapping note, give deeper analysis to all Saratoga route races on the main track. Note especially the differences between 1 1/16-mile and 1 1/8-mile races at Belmont versus the two-turn,, 1 1/8-mile races at Saratoga.

First, it is preferable to accent horses that did their best racing in two-turn races at Aqueduct and other tracks over those who shipped in to Saratoga with solid one-turn form at Belmont.

A notable exception can be certain one-turn Belmont horses stretching out in distance. While they may lack two-turn form, such horses could project to be the controlling speed in a 1 1/8-mile race at two turns at Saratoga.

Be wary, however, of an outside post draw in Saratoga's 1 1/8-mile races. At Saratoga, horses can lose their best chance when forced wide negotiating the first turn at the 1 1/8-mile distance. Conversely, an outside position in a one-turn Belmont route might have been the ideal starting post for a stalk-and-go type facing the long straightaway run to the turn.

These subtleties often provide crucial handicapping tidbits that lead to sharper evaluations of any horse with Belmont running lines, and a better feel for what each Belmont-based horse might do in the two turn Saratoga routes.