05/07/2003 12:00AM

Najran ties Dr. Fager's record

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Belmont Park opened its 55-day meet with a bang Wednesday when Najran shattered a 10-year-old track record in the $109,700 Westchester Handicap before a crowd of 7,781.

Najran, ridden by Edgar Prado, covered the one-mile distance in 1:32.24 over a fast track that had been kind to speed horses during the day. Williamstown previously held the record of 1:32.60, which he set in 1993. Najran's time equaled the North American dirt record, set by Dr. Fager on Aug. 24, 1968, in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. Dr. Fager carried 134 pounds.

Najran, who carried 113 pounds, was a 4 1/2-length winner over the 6-5 favorite, Saarland, who trailed the field early. Justification finished third, three lengths behind Saarland. Gander, Regal Sanction, Bowman's Band, and Saint Appeal completed the order of finish.

When the gates opened in the Grade 3 Westchester, Najran shot to the lead and maintained a comfortable advantage through fractions of 22.65 seconds, 44.67, and 1:07.76.

Najran returned $12.80.

Zito said Najran should be forgiven his poor performance when he was beaten 34 lengths in the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland April 13 because he banged his head in the starting gate and cut himself.

"He should have been scratched," Zito said. "The good thing Eibar Coa did, which I thank him for, is that he didn't exert him when he knew something was wrong."

Zito said that he would bring Najran back to Saratoga to train and would consider the $750,000 Metropolitan Mile May 26 for the colt's next start.

"I knew he was going to run big, but I never dreamed he would run this big," Zito said.

Prado said, "I was inside on a horse with speed, so I had to send him and take advantage."

John Velazquez, aboard Saarland, said the track didn't play in the favorite's favor.

"He's usually a jump slow out of the gate anyway, but they got away from him quickly this time," Velazquez said.

Nick Zito, who trains Najran for Buckram Oak Farm, won last Friday's Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs with Bird Town, who set a stakes record of 1:48.64 for 1 1/8 miles.