07/27/2009 11:00PM

Hoping for good weather and Rachel

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Barbara D. Livingston
Saratoga officils are hopeful Rachel Alexandra will race at the meet.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - With a little cooperation from Mother Nature - and Jess Jackson - this has the potential to be a sensational summer at Saratoga.

As the New York Racing Association prepares to open the gates Wednesday on the 141st season at the Spa - 36 days of racing through Labor Day, Sept. 7 - two of the biggest questions are what will the weather be and will Rachel Alexandra, the superstar filly owned by Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, run at the meet?

The answers do not come easily.

Last summer, the first half of the Saratoga season was decimated by wet weather that wrecked opening day, forced 35 races off the turf, and contributed to a 10.3 percent decline in all-sources wagering as well as a 9 percent drop in attendance. Given the recent trends in the sport, NYRA officials are hoping for a more modest 5 percent drop in wagering this summer. A recovering economy and some sunshine would help.

The 15-minute thunderstorm that blew through here Monday at 11:20 a.m. - and the beautiful weather that followed shortly thereafter - was a reminder how fickle Mother Nature can be. There is a 30-percent chance of isolated thunderstorms forecast for both Wednesday and Thursday.

The forecast for a Rachel Alexandra sighting is also unsettled. The Preakness-winning filly is scheduled to run in Sunday's $1.25 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. How she fares in that race and how she comes out will dictate whether she runs at Saratoga. The races for which she would most likely be considered are the Travers on Aug. 29 or the Personal Ensign the following day.

Should she run in the Travers, it could mark the first time since 1982 that three Triple Crown race winners met in the Mid-Summer Derby. Dual-classic winner Alysheba met Belmont winner Bet Twice in the 1987 Travers, while Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold squared off against and Preakness and Belmont winner Hansel in the 1991 Travers.

The connections of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, who is running in Saturday's West Virginia Derby, and Belmont winner Summer Bird, who will meet Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, have already announced their intentions to run in the Travers.

Those are the 3-year-old stars. But Saratoga is almost always about the 2-year-olds and, judging by the opening-day card - and recent work tabs - this has the makings of a strong summer in that department. Wednesday's opening-day feature, the Grade 3, $100,000 Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies, drew a field of 13. There is a 2-year-old maiden race for colts that came up with 11 and there is a maiden race for fillies on Thursday's program that drew 13.

"The 2-year-old program should be off the charts," said P.J. Campo, NYRA vice president/director of racing.

Though purses are expected to be down 6 or 7 percent as a whole, there is a purse incentive program in place that could make some races more lucrative based on field size. Purses for dirt races at nine furlongs or farther increase $4,000 to $8,000 per horse above six betting interests depending on class of race. The same incentives are in place for turf races at nine furlongs and farther that leave the paddock with eight betting interests. There is also a 20 percent increase for any off-the-turf race with eight starters or more.

"I think a) it's going to create real incentives; and b) it gets trainers and owners to understand the more participation we have the more wagering we get and the bigger the purses are," said Charles Hayward, NYRA president and CEO. "Basically those incentives will pay for themselves in the form of increased wagering."

The stakes program is strong as usual with 34 graded stakes, including 14 Grade 1's. In addition to the Travers, the Aug. 29 card will also feature the King's Bishop and Ballerina, both Grade 1 sprints.

Though he hasn't won the Saratoga trainers' title since 2006, Todd Pletcher could be in position to regain his throne. Pletcher said he believes his current 2-year-old crop is superior to the one he had in 2008.

"A lot of them are getting ready right now, so we're getting ready to find out a lot more in the next couple of weeks," Pletcher said.

Kiaran McLaughlin won last year's trainer's title with 17 wins from 62 starters, for a 27 percent strike rate. McLaughlin said that while he expects to have a good meet, he would be surprised if repeats.

"I would say for me to ever be leading trainer at Saratoga again would be a bit of a longshot," McLaughlin said. "We never run that many horses; if we make 60 starts, 70 starts it's a lot to win at 20 percent."

The race for leading jockey is open, with Ramon Dominguez emerging as a candidate to dethrone Alan Garcia. Former Spa leading riders Edgar Prado and John Velazquez hope to bounce back from so-so Belmont meets. Jose Lezcano, Cornelio Velasquez , Eibar Coa, Javier Castellano, Robby Albarado, and Julien Leparoux should win their share of races as well.

If all stakes are as competitive as the Schuylerville appears to be, then it will be a stellar meet. The field of 13 includes Decelerator, who won the Grade 3 Debutante at Churchill by a neck for D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Schuylerville six times. In her debut, Decelerator defeated Hot Dixie Chick, a Steve Asmussen-trained filly who came back to set a track record for five furlongs in her second start and could go off favored here.

"She's a real ratable, very good-minded filly, very competitive when she gets hooked up," Lukas said of Decelerator. "When she beat Asmussen's filly that day, [Hot Dixie Chick] had everything her way and she ran her down."

While Decelerator is in post 5, Hot Dixie Chick breaks from the rail, where Albarado will most likely have to utilize the filly's speed.

"Talent's a good thing to have no matter where you're drawn," said Asmussen, who won this race last year with Jardin. "How long it takes them to load 13 here, how you get away, all of those things will come into play."

Asmussen also sends out Kinsolving, who stumbled at the start of the Debutante and finished third.

Franny Freud, a New York-bred, has several things in her favor and is a usable longshot. After winning her debut by seven lengths, she shipped to Woodbine and ran a solid second to Midst in the My Dear Stakes in a swiftly run race.

First post for the opening day program is 1 p.m. Eastern. Belmont will be open for simulcasting of Saratoga's races, with free admission and free parking.