07/24/2005 11:00PM

This meet just has to be better

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Mike Luzzi had a lot to look forward to entering the 2004 Saratoga meeting. He was coming off a stellar Belmont Park stand where he had won 34 races. He and his family were about to spend their first summer in a new home they had purchased the previous December.

"Family life was good, I felt good riding, I liked coming to work every day," Luzzi recalled in a recent interview. "I just felt balanced."

Less than a quarter of a mile into the first race on opening day, Luzzi lost his balance. Suddenly, life wasn't as good anymore.

Rain had forced the first race of the meet off the turf, and Luzzi's second call on the program, Honey Fritters, drew into the field off the also-eligible list. When the gates opened, Luzzi's rein broke and Honey Fritters became a runaway train. Racing past the field, Honey Fritters made a beeline toward the outside fence. Luzzi tried to reach up and grab a piece of the horse's equipment but couldn't reach it. Knocked off balance, Luzzi bailed and landed on his right leg.

"I knew right away it was broken," Luzzi said.

While the majority of Saratoga Springs was celebrating the opening of another race meet, Luzzi lay in an Albany hospital, where Dr. Richard Alfred inserted a rod and two screws to repair the broken leg. Not only would Luzzi miss Saratoga, but the important races in the fall as well.

"Disappointing? Completely," Luzzi said. "Depressing? Completely. The only positive was I didn't have a cast - I wasn't completely immobile.''

Luzzi, 35, said he didn't come to the track very often last summer. Good thing, too, because several of his clients, including his main one, Bruce Levine, were doing well. Luzzi put all his focus on getting healthy and ready to ride.

"I didn't stop thinking about getting back to riding the day after I got hurt," Luzzi said. "That was on my mind every day: 'I got to get back.' "

Luzzi returned on Nov. 12 and even was lucky enough to get put up by the stewards with his first mount back. But Luzzi admits he has not regained the business or momentum he had last summer as this year's Saratoga meet opens on Wednesday.

Making things tougher is that this year's jockey colony will include Rafael Bejarano, Eibar Coa, Ramon Dominguez, and Gary Stevens, all of whom were not here last summer.

"I'm looking forward to it and I'm wondering . . . it could be a disaster," said Luzzi, whose best Saratoga season was his first, in 1994 when he rode 17 winners. "I hope not. I don't think so. I work hard enough."

Luzzi said the presence of Bejarano in New York during the winter cut into his business. He lost the mount on top sprinter Don Six after he rode the six-furlong specialist in a pair of seven-furlong races.

Luzzi did finish the Belmont meet with 26 winners, good enough for ninth in the standings. He rode winners for 13 trainers, including Levine, with whom he teamed for 10 trips to the winner's circle.

Luzzi hopes Levine can maintain the success he has had at Belmont and Monmouth this summer during Saratoga. He also hopes to get into a few new barns.

Luzzi has only two mounts on opening day, but they are for Christophe Clement and Bill Mott, who combined to win 42 races during the Belmont meet.

"Every year I've been up there, I've noticed someone you didn't consider pop up and have this [good] meet," Luzzi said, citing Jean-Luc Samyn one year and Robbie Davis another.

"That's always in the back of your mind," said Luzzi. "Maybe it's my turn to have a surprise like that."

Luzzi said he would love to win the first race of the meet. Unfortunately, it's a steeplechase event and Luzzi won't be riding.

Luzzi had his share of jumping last year.