07/24/2006 12:00AM

New York's six-week spectacle

Flower Alley is expected to run in the Aug. 5 Whitney Handicap for four-time meet-leading trainer Todd Pletcher.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Overseeing 4,500 slot machines at Aqueduct may be the primary reason there are as many as 16 entities formulating bids for the franchise to run Thoroughbred racing in New York. For the rest of the story, pay attention to the next six weeks.

Saratoga, the premier meet on the Thoroughbred racing calendar, opens the gates on Wednesday for its 138th season. From the backstretch, to the jockeys' quarters to the owner's boxes to the betting windows, Saratoga is the place where the elite meet to race, gamble, and party.

"It's 36 days of a 250-plus New York racing calendar; in those 36 days the weight that it carries is considerable," said Bill Nader, senior vice president for the New York Racing Association, which holds the franchise to conduct racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga through the end of 2007. "It's a huge part of our economic numbers, obviously attendance and wagering, and in terms of awareness and visibility for New York racing and for racing nationally and worldwide, it's clearly the biggest race meet in North America. It's clearly the reason why people want to invest so much in owning and breeding horses, because they want to win at Saratoga.''

Todd Pletcher, who will seek an unprecedented fifth consecutive trainer title, first came to Saratoga in 1989 when he was an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas.

"It didn't take me very long to understand that Saratoga is a very, very important meet for owners, therefore trainers and jockeys,'' Pletcher said. "People seem to want to be there and want to run there and want to win there, and want to emphasize that meet."

And, Pletcher added, "Of all the meets we go to it's the one we'd like to win the most."

One reason is the prestige. Another is the money. A lucrative stakes program that includes 32 graded events - 15 Grade 1's - worth $10.3 million is up for grabs the next six weeks. After a two-year experiment running only two juvenile stakes in each division, NYRA has restored a third stakes for each gender. The $100,000 Schuylerville, not run last year, is the opening-day feature.

The biggest change to the schedule is the addition of the Grade 1 Woodward, which has produced the Horse of the Year the last two years - Ghostzapper and Saint Liam. Traditionally run at Belmont Park, the $500,000 Woodward will be run on Sept. 2. With the Whitney on Aug. 5, there are now two Grade 1 events for the handicap division at Saratoga. Flower Alley, who won the Jim Dandy and Travers here last year, is expected to run in both.

The $1 million Travers on Aug. 26 is the meet's showcase event. Though it won't have the Kentucky Derby winner for the 11th straight year, it should include Preakness winner Bernardini.

NYRA recently announced an across-the-board purse increase for the day-to-day races. New York-bred races, of which there will be more than last year, received a $7,000 boost, while open-company allowance races and overnight stakes were raised by $5,000.

While Pletcher is a virtual certainty to win the trainer title, he will have plenty of challengers. Richard Dutrow Jr. won the Belmont title with 29 wins and won 13 races here last year despite being on suspension the first week of the meet. Bill Mott, who has won or shared eight Spa trainer titles, is always a threat. Bobby Frankel won at a 30 percent clip at Belmont and is loaded with 3-year-olds who have plenty of allowance conditions. Scott Blasi has taken over for the suspended Steve Asmussen, who won 14 races here last summer. Dale Romans is coming off another record-setting meet at Churchill Downs.

Even without retired Hall of Fame jockeys Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens, the jockeys' room looks as strong as ever. Garrett Gomez, Kent Desormeaux, and former Spa champion Mike Smith, who all rode at Del Mar last summer, are here. Apprentice Julian Leparoux, who won his first career race here last summer, is now the nation's leading rider in terms of wins. Rafael Bejarano, who has been chasing Leparoux all spring and summer in Kentucky, figures to win more than the seven races he won here last year. Shaun Bridgmohan, a former New York regular who was Arlington Park's leading rider last summer, is back and will ride first call for Blasi.

That group joins the regulars, including John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, Eibar Coa, Cornelio Velasquez, Javier Castellano, Mike Luzzi, Richard Migliore, and Jose Santos.

Wednesday's 10-race card is fabulous, topped by the Grade 3, $100,000 Schuylerville at six furlongs. Nine were entered, but Mott said he plans to scratch Chief Officer, a New York-bred maiden winner. Six of the remaining eight entrants are coming off maiden victories in which they were short-priced favorites. The only stakes winner of the field is Desire to Excel, who came off a maiden win at Aqueduct to post a five-length victory in the Astoria at Belmont on July 2.

Kelly Breen, the New Jersey-based trainer of Desire to Excel, was elated with his filly's outside draw and said he believes she is clearly the one to beat.

"I love 2-year-olds that don't have to get any dirt in their face regardless how they have to break,'' Breen said. "I think we have her on the top of her game. She's going to be tough to beat.''

Baroness Thatcher may be a maiden, but she ran a very good race when second to Expertise, another Schuylerville starter. She broke slowly from the outside post and had to go five wide while Expertise hugged the rail from her inside post.