07/31/2001 11:00PM

NYRA does Saratoga right


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The spectacular weather is undoubtedly a factor, but it is also evident from the rising figures that Saratoga is firmly established as America's Royal Ascot: the country's most popular course, presenting the finest and most significant racing.

Since its inaugural meeting in 1864 - which began 137 years ago Thursday - Saratoga's fortunes, like those of most tracks, have ebbed and flowed, perhaps with grander overtones. But in recent years there has been unmistakable and sustained growth, resulting in last summer's record average attendance of 27,000. Statistics covering the first six days of the current meeting show continued increases, a heartening note at a time when the national economy has softened.

These increases have been spurred by initiatives of the New York Racing Association, which recognizes that good racing is good business. NYRA placed great emphasis on higher purses to attract better horses and obtained enabling legislation that helped purses rise from $79 million to $115 million in the past five years. Saratoga is now able to compete, and its signature features - the $1 million Travers for 3-year-olds, the $750,000 Whitney Handicap, and the $750,000 Alabama for 3-year-old fillies - invariably attract leading candidates for divisional titles. Other divisions are keenly competitive as well. Leading horses from every racing area of the U.S. are sent to this national showcase for invaluable exposure.

Another of NYRA's meaningful initiatives at Saratoga has been to make an afternoon at the races a pleasant experience. As crowds began to grow, surveys indicated that construction of additional stands was neither financially feasible nor practical. Development of the grounds behind the stands was a viable alternative and the work has been carried out with skill and imagination. Thousands now enjoy the sport in a casual setting distinctive to Saratoga, aided by several improvements installed this year.

They include walkways between areas, enabling patrons to avoid muddy paths, tote boards to provide more information than in the past, and large display boards to supplement the many television monitors for viewing the races.

Still another of NYRA's effective initiatives has been its support of and assistance to New York State's breeding industry. As purses for state-breds increased and additional opportunities for them became available, there was a noticeable improvement in both racing and breeding stock, which in turn led to increases in handle generated from races restricted to New York-breds. A full program of restricted stakes with a total value of $1 million is now presented each fall at Aqueduct, while Saratoga and Belmont Park offer valuable features for state-breds.

One of the key NYRA initiatives was introduced at the start of this meeting and concerns a reduction in the takeout on wagering. It is a matter of record that reduced takeout leads to increases in handle, and officials here are looking forward to Saratoga's final figures as reflecting this principle.

NYRA came into racing in July of 1955 with the assistance of industry leaders. Faced with the deterioration of the sport and its facilities in New York, those leaders relinquished private ownership of Belmont Park, Aqueduct, Jamaica, and Saratoga, sold Jamaica, and combined Saratoga, Belmont, and Aqueduct into a corporation devoting its profits to the state. On the basis of a 25-year franchise, since extended, NYRA was able to borrow the millions necessary to rebuild Belmont and Aqueduct and to make important capital improvements at Saratoga.

NYRA is now in its 46th year of conducting Thoroughbred racing in New York and the record speaks for itself.

It produces the best racing in the U.S. at excellent facilities, and has conducted its operations with high standards.

One of its notable achievements has been the development of Belmont Stakes Day to a prominence enjoyed by its Triple Crown partners, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The 2001 Belmont, won by Point Given, attracted a crowd of 73,000 despite the lack of a possible Triple Crown sweep.

Belmont Park plays host this fall to the World Thoroughbred Championships, and NYRA officials are sparing no effort to make the occasion a special one. They may have an opportunity to present the greatest single event in the history of the series if America's Point Given, the Preakness and Belmont winner, and Ireland's Galileo, winner of the Epsom and Irish Derbies, hold their form until Oct. 27.