07/24/2002 12:00AM

Opening day breaks records again


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Open the gates, and they will come. And, they will bet.

Under ideal weather conditions, and despite an offtrack to begin the day, Saratoga posted record numbers for the Wednesday opening of its 134th season.

The ontrack crowd of 32,913 topped last year's figure of 31,254 by 5 percent and the ontrack handle of $3,723,441 beat last year's figure by 6 percent. Total handle on opening day was $14,941,864, which beat last year's figure by 4 percent.

"It's just magic, it gets bigger and bigger every year,'' said Bill Nader, the senior vice president of the New York Racing Association.

"We got a little bit of a break in the weather in that the rain fell [Tuesday] and it cleared up beautifully today. Losing the first race off the turf, losing the trifecta in race 4, I thought we might be vulnerable. But, still, ontrack and total handle are up by a pretty good margin''

The magic Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez had at Belmont continued at Saratoga as the leading trainer and jockey, respectively, from the Belmont meet, teamed up to win the $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes with Freedom's Daughter.

Breaking from the rail, Freedom's Daughter dueled with Mike's Wildcat through fractions of 21.78 seconds and 45.59. Mike's Wildcat tired, and Freedom's Daughter opened up a lengthy advantage in the stretch and held off Miss Mary Apples by 1 1/4 lengths. It was four lengths back to Mymich in third.

Freedom's Daughter ($6.90) covered six furlongs in 1:12.14.

"We got post 1 and we had no choice even if the track was not playing to speed,'' said Velazquez, who has won five of the last 11 stakes run in New York. "She was quick to break out of there, she got a great position and when the other horse hooked her, she opened up by herself so I didn't have to do much. Then down the lane I squeezed her and she responded.''

Having the rail, Pletcher knew there was no option but to send Freedom's Daughter. And he was somewhat concerned because speed wasn't holding.

"All day horses seemed like they were getting to the eighth pole and getting pretty drunk,'' said Pletcher, who trains the filly for Padua Stable. "I felt better when they harrowed the track after [the seventh]. From the rail I didn't see us having a lot of options.''

Though racing was conducted under ideal weather conditions - bright sun, low humidity - the track began the day as muddy from heavy rains that hit the area Tuesday. The first race, scheduled for the turf, was taken off the grass, and the other three turf races were run over a course listed as yielding.

Trainer John Kimmel got off to a rousing start, saddling the winners of two of the first three races, including Silver Squire, who won a 2-year-old maiden race at 30-1. Kimmel also won the opener with Hydrogen ($6.50). On the day, he went 2 for 4.

"We had a such a tough Belmont meet, it got a little discouraging,'' said Kimmel, who went 6 for 56 at Belmont. "We decided to back off our horses and freshen them. This is a good way to start, but we got a long way to go.''

Jockeys Edgar Prado and Jorge Chavez both won two races on the card.

Puzzlement returns a winner

Puzzlement, who was scratched from the Belmont Stakes two days before the race with a bruised foot, rallied from well off the pace to win an allowance race by three-quarters of a length.

Making his first start since running second in the Peter Pan on May 25, Puzzlement was about 14 lengths off the pace after three quarters run in 1:12.03. Under Jean-Luc Samyn, Puzzlement advanced into contention around the turn, tipped wide for the drive and wore down the pace-setting Wild Years in the final yards. Puzzlement covered the nine furlongs in 1:50.87.

"You couldn't hope for a better race for a horse that hasn't been out in a while when you're thinking about better things later on,'' said Jerkens, who is thinking about running Puzzlement in the Jim Dandy and Travers.