04/27/2008 11:00PM

New meet focus on customers


ELMONT, N.Y. - No longer a lame-duck as a track operator, the New York Racing Association will use the start of the Belmont spring-summer meet to begin working on areas where its performance could be deemed lame.

Customer service will be a point of emphasis for NYRA beginning Wednesday when Belmont opens its 59-day spring-summer session at 1 p.m. Racing will be conducted on Wednesday through Sunday until July 20. From a new hospitality center, to remodeled bathrooms in the clubhouse, to an enhanced television presentation, to a room devoted to its high-volume players, NYRA is seeking to become more fan-friendly.

The dark clouds that hovered over the NYRA for years as it battled a federal indictment for fraud, bankruptcy, and a fight to retain the franchise to run racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga have dissipated. On Monday, a federal bankruptcy court judge approved NYRA's reorganization plan, and by the end of June it is hoped NYRA will officially emerge from bankruptcy. NYRA filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection 18 months ago.

By the end of June it is expected the final agreement between the state and NYRA regarding a 25-year franchise extension that was granted by the state legislature in February should also be in place.

NYRA president Charlie Hayward acknowledged that NYRA has been lacking in the customer service department. He's hoping things will change beginning Wednesday when NYRA unveils a hospitality center in the first floor of the clubhouse. It will be staffed with representatives who can guide groups and fans new to Belmont where they need to go. Electronic kiosks are also expected to replace an antiquated message board that had been used to welcome groups.

NYRA has taken over the video presentation of its product from Tele-View and while there figures to be growing pains, officials are hopeful of providing better content with enhanced graphics and more cameras to better show what's going on in the post parade and at the starting gate.

Members of the NYRA Rewards program will be permitted access to a private room in the second floor clubhouse adjacent to the Paddock Dining Room. A bevy of flat-screen televisions are in place and the room overlooks the paddock. Flat-screen televisions will also be placed throughout the backyard.

"The things that we've been able to do at Belmont that people can see, feel, and touch are emblematic of our mentality and the way our mentality ought to be," said Gavin Landry, the vice president/sales and market development.

Purses at Belmont will start where they left off last summer, which is to say approximately 12 percent higher than when the 2007 spring-summer meet began. The stable area is beginning to fill up with some familiar faces as trainers Christophe Clement, Bill Mott, and Barclay Tagg return from south Florida.

D. Wayne Lukas, who did not stable in New York last spring, Allen Iwinski, who recently returned after undergoing treatment for Hepatitis, and Giuseppe Iadisernia, are among the new faces here this year.

The stakes program is always plentiful, even more so this year with 38 stakes, including 11 Grade 1 events. The highlight, of course, is the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, which this year will be run on June 7. That day's undercard has three other Grade 1 events, including the newly minted Grade 1 Just a Game.

The biggest change to the spring-summer stakes schedule is the placement of the Grade 1 Man o' War, a marathon turf event previously run in the fall. The Man o' War, run at 1 3/8 miles, will now be run on June 12.

The stakes action begins on Wednesday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Handicap, which features Grasshopper shortening up to a mile. When last seen in New York, Grasshopper was giving Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense everything he wanted before succumbing by a half-length in the Travers at Saratoga.

The connections of Grasshopper believe their horse is more effective with something to run at and there is plenty of speed in the Westchester for them to find out if they're right. If Grasshopper wins, he most likely will return to New York for the Met Mile.

Mr. Umphrey, Saint Damon, and Divine Park all show a preference for racing on the front end. Sightseeing has already proven himself effective in one-turn races at Belmont, winning a maiden race and the Grade 2 Peter Pan as a 3-year-old. He is coming off a fifth-place finish in a turf allowance race for trainer Shug McGaughey.

"There should be some speed in front of him, I'm just looking to see him finish," McGaughey said.

* On opening day, general admission and parking are free. However, the price of programs is going up. The Post Parade will be $2.50 while Daily Racing Program, which includes all simulcast tracks with limited past performance lines, will sell for $3.