Updated on 09/17/2011 11:26AM

Pieces in place for outstanding season


ELMONT, N.Y. - Sunday, Belmont Park welcomed home Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide. Wednesday, it will welcome back New York's racing fans as the 55-day spring-summer meet gets under way with a nine-race card. First post is 1 p.m. Eastern.

With the New York-bred and-based Funny Cide winning Saturday's Kentucky Derby and the New York-based Bird Town taking Friday's Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, there is already plenty of enthusiasm for the Belmont meet.

Belmont will conduct racing Wednesdays through Sundays until July 20. The lone exception to the schedule is Memorial Day week when Belmont will be open Monday, May 26 and closed Wednesday, May 28. First post will be 1 p.m. most days. On Fridays, first post is 3 p.m. with the exception of Fridays June 6 and July 5.

Belmont will offer 42 stakes races worth $8.975 million during the meet. Of course, the centerpiece of the session is the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, to be held June 7. Funny Cide, who resides in Belmont's barn 6, would be going for the Triple Crown if he wins the Preakness at Pimlico May 17.

Other meet highlights include the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap, which could feature Congaree versus the speedy 3-year-old Midas Eyes, and the first two legs of the New York Racing Association's revamped Triple Crown for 3-year-old fillies.

In the past, the series consisted of the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks. This year, the Acorn has been dropped from the series and the Mother Goose and Coaching Club will be combined with the Alabama Aug. 16 at Saratoga. If a 3-year-old filly can win all three races, she will earn her connections a $2 million bonus. It is possible that Storm Flag Flying, last year's 2-year-old filly champion, will be pointed for the series.

Volponi, last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, is expected to run at this meet as early as Saturday in the Bold Ruler Handicap at six furlongs. His major targets for the meet are the $250,000 Brooklyn Handicap June 14 and/or the $500,000 Suburban Handicap July 5. The Suburban has been granted Grade 1 status for the first time since 1996.

Bobby Frankel may not have won the Kentucky Derby, but he seemed to win everything else during the opening week of the Churchill Downs meet. The 16 horses he had at Churchill - including stakes winners Midas Eyes, You, Aldebaran, Sightseek, and Heat Haze, as well as Kentucky Derby second- and third-place finishers Empire Maker and Peace Rules - were scheduled to have arrived in New York on Tuesday.

This means that the top three finishers from the Kentucky Derby will be stabled four barns apart on the Belmont backstretch.

The stakes action begins Wednesday with the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Handicap for 3-year-olds and up going one mile. Saarland, who has only raced twice since finishing 10th in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, will try to win his first stakes race since the 2001 Remsen.

Saarland is 2 for 2 since adding blinkers with both allowance wins coming at the Westchester distance of one mile. Saarland's last race came in the slop at Aqueduct April 11.

"I thought he ran very good. He hadn't run for a long time, and he had missed a little training in Florida,' McGaughey said. "Since then, all systems are go. A mile against these kind of horses still isn't his bag, but maybe he'll be able to overcome it.'

The 7-year-old gelding Gander could keep the good times rolling for the New York breeding industry in the Westchester. Gander is 6 for 16 at Belmont, including a victory in last year's Empire Classic. He won an optional claiming race in March at Gulfstream and fired a bullet half-mile breeze Friday.

Bowman's Band goes turf to dirt and picks up jockey Jerry Bailey. Najran, Justification, Regal Sanction, and Saint Appeal round out the field.

Also on Wednesday's card is the $60,000 Yanks Music Stakes for fillies and mares, 4 and up, which have never won an open stakes race. Along Came Mary, a four-time restricted stakes winner, looms the one to beat.