07/23/2006 11:00PM

Looking for a hot start at the Spa


NEW YORK - For most racing people in the eastern third of the country, Wednesday is one of the biggest days of the year, right up there rivaling Kentucky Derby Day and Breeders' Cup Day. Wednesday, of course, is opening day at Saratoga, where the sport, the history, and the social scene is unmatched by any other track in the country.

But for most of us, the real appeal of Saratoga is the handicapping and the betting. Some of the best-bred 2-year-olds in the world will debut at Saratoga, and in the next race you might see old veterans going three turns on the turf. You have stables that ship in from other circuits for the entire meet, and you will see small out-of-town outfits make one-day raids into Saratoga in the hopes of making a betting score. Really, where else would it be entirely possible to see horses in the same race having made their last starts at Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, Delaware Park, Churchill Downs, Hollywood Park, Finger Lakes, and Suffolk Downs? And on top of it all, at times you have to deal with fickle weather. You must really be on your handicapping game to stay afloat at Saratoga. Either that, or be luckier than any of your even closest friends would be willing to stomach. But if you can knock out a profit by meet's end, you will walk away with a degree of satisfaction that you just wouldn't get beating any other track. You will get that, plus the knowledge that your handicapping game is pretty darn good.

Saratoga 2006 immediately gets off on a better foot than did Saratoga 2005, which got off to a flying stop when it began with a steeplechase race in which 40 percent of the field failed to finish. There is no steeplechase race on Wednesday, and we know this because the opening-day card was drawn five days in advance. (Note to a few certain racetrack operators, and you know who you are: Breaking with the traditional 48-hour entry rule did not cause the sky to fall. I know it's Saratoga, but even drawing 120 hours out, an excellent total of 116 horses were entered in the 10 races.)

Yet even without a steeplechase race to avoid, the juiciest part of Wednesday's card still seems to be the latter part. Since the pick four is my favorite bet, I tend to first look at racing cards in that context. And while I'm not saying I won't play the early pick four, encompassing races 2-5, what makes the early pick four problematic is that the final leg is one of those 2-year-old maiden races for which Saratoga is famous. There are a bunch of nicely bred first-time starters from win-early barns, and several colts who have already run well. It would have been nice if this maiden race was the first leg in the early pick four, because it would have afforded us a look at the tote board. Still, it's a race I think you have to try to spread. And I know (because it always seems to happen this way) the more horses I use in a race like this, the shorter the price on the winner will be.

But the late pick four, starting in race 7, is very interesting. It begins with one of those allowance races that would be a stakes race anywhere else that is not Saratoga. I'm the Tiger makes his first start since crushing 13 opponents in the De Francis Dash last November, but he runs well fresh and is a must-use. But I would also use at least Awesome Twist, who won big in his first start of the year and has been a good horse waiting to happen for a long time.

The eighth race is the Rogues Walk overnight stakes for New York-bred females. Sweet Sweet, and especially Judy Soda, are logical contenders who must be used. To a lesser degree, at least on backup pick four tickets, I would also use Royal Fudge and Samsincharge in the hopes of getting this gimmick up into four-figure payoff territory.

The ninth race is the featured Schuylerville Stakes, and while Desire to Excel won't be anywhere near the 24-1 she was when she won the Astoria at Belmont, she is still a key horse in my pick four play, as she ran legitimately fast when she won the Astoria. But I would also use Chief Officer, who won big in good time in her first start and now gets Lasix, and on deep backup tickets Frances G, off a good win in her debut.

And in the final leg of this pick four, Exton is obvious off a strong second last time out in his second start off a layoff. But since Exton is a closer, and this race is a mile on the tight-turned inner turf course, he could run into trouble. So I would also use, in varying degrees, Tempt Fortune, Mach Three, Brilliant Cut, and Pulpiteer.

If I choose the correct backups and construct my pick four tickets the right way, and if I cash, then as good as Saratoga is, it will be even better. Saratoga is at its very, very best when you play from in front.