04/28/2009 12:00AM

Mood upbeat as Belmont opens

Bob Coglianese
Formidable figures to be part of the speed in Wednesday's Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester on opening day at Belmont Park.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Business was down approximately 10 percent at Aqueduct. Purses are going to revert to 2007 levels at Belmont. And slots, well, they continue to be a fantasy.

Still, when compared to the rest of the Thoroughbred racing landscape in North America things don't seem quite so bad in New York. And they should only get better beginning Wednesday when Belmont Park opens its 64-day spring/summer meet, topped by the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Stakes.

Racing everywhere has been hurt by the economy, and Aqueduct was no different. NYRA officials estimate that handle was down 10 percent, which is one reason purses at Belmont Park will revert to 2007 levels, or about $5,000 to $10,000 less per race depending on class.

Still, when you consider the uncertain future of racing in California as well as with any tracks owned by the bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp., many in New York view the glass as half-full.

"When you look around American racing, we're still doing very well," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said about New York. "I feel we're number one in racing in the country. Everywhere has their issues, but they're doing plenty of things right here. I feel the track's been in good shape, they're trying to fix up and improve things a little more. The purses are down a little bit, but they're still very good when you compare them nationwide. To me, it's disappointing about the slots, but I'm happy to be at Belmont Park and in New York with horses."

The New York Racing Association is touting more than 50 improvements to the facilities at Belmont. Two things of note are an upgrade of the water supply lines and a replacement of the major transformers. Fans who attended last year's Belmont Stakes will surely remember the plumbing difficulties that left for uncomfortable conditions. Then two transformers blew on closing weekend last summer, which left one day intolerable and forced the cancellation of another race card.

Among the new features at Belmont is a hospitality/picnic area beyond the outside rail just above the eighth pole. This location features charcoal barbecue pits and umbrella-topped tables and can handle groups ranging from 50 to 250 people.

The racing figures to improve with the return to New York of the usual major outfits such as Allen Jerkens, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher, Christophe Clement, and Nick Zito. Paulo Lobo, who has been based in Southern California for many years, has moved his stable to Belmont for the first time. Steve Klesaris, who has maintained a string at Delaware Park, also has 12 stalls at Belmont.

The jockey colony will be extremely strong as Ramon Dominguez has finally decided to stay in New York year round. Garrett Gomez, the reigning two-time Eclipse Award winner, will be here the day after the Kentucky Derby as will Kent Desormeaux, Alan Garcia, John Velazquez, Eibar Coa, and Edgar Prado.

Belmont will conduct 29 graded stakes - including 10 Grade 1's - worth $8.5 million in purses. The centerpiece, as always, is the 141st Belmont Stakes, the third leg of racing's Triple Crown, to be held June 6.

The stakes action begins Wednesday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester, a prep for the prestigious $600,000 Metropolitan Handicap on Memorial Day. A field of 10 was entered for the Westchester, though Wishful Tomcat, who won Sunday's Kings Point, and Cave Valley, who is entered Friday, are likely to scratch.

When on his game, Bribon can be awfully tough. He won a one-mile allowance race here last summer in which he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 118. Bribon enters this race off a bad fourth in the Gulfstream Park Handicap but will be reunited with Alan Garcia, who has been on for the gelding's last two victories.

Formidable and Spin Master look to be the primary speed of the race, though McLaughlin figures Per Incanto, an allowance winner at Aqueduct in his North American debut, will be close as well.

"The mile is a question mark, you don't know till you give it a try," McLaughlin said. "His first race he probably needed, but he ran well. It looks like he'll be forwardly placed in this race, and we'll give it a try."

Tale of Ekati, the multiple Grade 1 winner, gets blinkers and a switch to Dominguez. That's because Prado has chosen to ride the other Barclay Tagg-trained horse, Wicked B. Havior, who comes in off an allowance win at Keeneland.