07/23/2007 11:00PM

Plenty to get excited about at the Spa

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Saratoga kicks off its 139th season Wednesday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Whether it is the star-studded backstretch, the increased purses, or the blockbuster opening weekend, there appears to be more enthusiasm than usual surrounding Saratoga, which kicks off its 139th season Wednesday with a stellar 10-race card.

The backstretch is filling up with some of the game's highest-profile runners, led by Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Preakness winner Curlin. If Street Sense runs in Sunday's Jim Dandy as expected, he will be the first Derby winner to run here during his 3-year-old season since Thunder Gulch in 1995. While Curlin is preparing for the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth on Aug. 5, there is hope for a Street Sense-Curlin showdown in the $1omillion Travers on Aug. 25.

Saturday's Grade 1 Whitney is expected to draw a competitive and large field from which a new handicap division leader could emerge to replace the recently retired Invasor. Flashy Bull, Brass Hat, Magna Graduate, and Papi Chullo head the field.

The $750,000 Whitney was moved from the second Saturday of the meet to the first Saturday to accommodate the new Breeders' Cup Challenge Series. The Whitney will be run on the same card with the Diana, Go for Wand, and Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. The winners of those four races earn automatic berths into their respective Breeders' Cup races this fall at Monmouth Park.

Thus far, trainers Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher have cornered the 2-year-old market east of the Mississippi, and they figure to unleash some more good-looking youngsters during the next six weeks. But other horsemen may be about ready to showcase some of their top juvenile stock as well, according to New York Racing Association racing secretary P.J. Campo.

"Looking at the work tab, I think it's going to be off the charts with 2-year-olds," Campo said. "Between the maiden claimers, the turf, maiden specials, and New York-breds we have 38 maiden [races] in the first [three weeks]. I think these guys are just loaded with 2-year-olds. I think a lot of guys have upgraded their 2-year-old stock."

Whether it be 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older horses, or New York-breds, all horses will be running for more money than ever this summer at Saratoga. NYRA announced a 13.6 percent purse increase, which is expected to put the daily average purse distribution past $770,000. That includes 47 stakes - including 15 Grade 1's - with purses totaling more than $10.3omillion.

"I think it energizes everybody on the backstretch - all the jockeys, all the trainers, all the owners - it definitely was great," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. "I think it helped with everybody's positive attitude."

The centerpiece event of every Saratoga meet is the $1 million Travers on Aug. 25. Street Sense arrived here Sunday with the Travers as his goal. He is expected to run in Sunday's $500,000 Jim Dandy, his first start since losing the Preakness by a head to Curlin. Meanwhile, Curlin will run in the Haskell, and Asmussen is noncommittal about coming back in the Travers. Asmussen said his major target for the second half of the year is the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"We're pointing to the Haskell, there's no way of knowing if he'll run back in three weeks," said Asmussen, who plans to bring back the undefeated Tiz Wonderful from injury in Sunday's Jim Dandy.

Though Asmussen is coming off a record-setting Churchill meet, he admits he won't have the numbers to battle for leading trainer. Asmussen said that will be a duel between Todd Pletcher and Gary Contessa.

Pletcher has won an unprecedented five consecutive Saratoga titles. Last year, he won 10 stakes - including four Grade 1's - as part of his 24 wins.

"I don't think you can ever go to Saratoga and think you're going to win 10 stakes and four Grade 1's, but we should have the same number of starts [116] as we did last year and maybe more," said Pletcher, who, coincidentally, won 10 stakes, including four Grade 1's, at Belmont. "Like always, our success is dependent on how the 2-year-olds run. We will be well represented in the first two stakes and hopefully have some newcomers that are going to start off well."

Pletcher has won three of the last four runnings of the Schuylerville, but even though he has two entered in the opening-day feature, he won't have the favorite in the Grade 3, $100,000 race for juvenile fillies.

Pletcher will likely just send out Lady Chace - a maiden winner at Monmouth Park - and scratch New York City Girl. Lady Chace will have to step up her game to compete with the likes of According to Plan and Subtle Aly, who were most impressive debut winners at Belmont and Churchill Downs, respectively.

According to Plan, trained by Barclay Tagg and owned by a partnership that includes NYRA chairman Steve Duncker and NYRA president and CEO Charlie Hayward, won her debut by 4 1/4 lengths while running five furlongs in 56.21 seconds. She came back with a solid four-furlong work over the weekend at Saratoga.

"She's gotten pretty aggressive," said Robin Smullen, Tagg's assistant. "She was aggressive before, but now she's like sitting on top of the world. She thinks she's all that."

Subtle Aly will have to stretch out from 4 1/2 furlongs to six. A daughter of French Envy, Subtle Aly won her debut by five lengths running the distance in a track-record 50.48 seconds. The International Equine Acquisitions Holdings Stable purchased controlling interest in the filly recently and moved her from Asmussen to Richard Dutrow Jr. As of Sunday, Dutrow had yet to lay eyes on the filly.

"She showed a turn of foot that maybe 5 percent of them a year are capable of showing," Scott Blasi, Asmussen's assistant, said of Subtle Aly.

Asmussen will run Blitzing, a first-out winner at Churchill, who will break from the outside post under Shaun Bridgmohan.

The opening-day forecast calls for sunny but humid conditions with temperatures in the mid-80s.