07/24/2009 12:00AM

Rain at Belmont should bring Spa fruit


NEW YORK - The Belmont Park spring-summer meeting that ends Sunday featured only a few star turns, and may be best remembered for a historic run of miserable weather that compromised the turf-racing program and delayed the development of 2-year-olds. The good news is that these losses could well turn out to be gains for the 36-day stand that begins at Saratoga Wednesday.

It didn't just seem like it rained every single day during June: It actually did, reportedly for the first time in at least 40 years. More than 60 turf races at the meet were switched to the main track before the Independence Day weekend, turning one program after another into a sea of slop and scratches. There was less 2-year-old racing than anyone can recall, as trainers were hesitant to put serious works into young prospects. So it would probably be safe to expect a Saratoga with even more grass and juvenile races than usual.

At least Belmont got lucky with perfect weather on its four biggest cards: Memorial Day, Belmont Stakes Day, July 4th, and Mother Goose Day, when Rachel Alexandra turned in what was clearly the most memorable performance of the meet: a record 19 1/4-length romp that, combined with a 20 1/4-length Kentucky Oaks victory and a Preakness triumph against males, completed a trifecta of astounding dominance.

Horse of the Meet honors, if there were such a thing, would go either to her or to the nation's only other three-time Grade 1 winner this year, Gio Ponti, who won both the Manhattan and the Man o' War to establish himself as the country's leading grass horse.

His trainer, Christophe Clement, went into the final weekend of the meet with 21 winners, just two behind Gary Contessa for the title, but with many fewer starters - 77 as opposed to Contessa's 199. Clement's record is all the more impressive because he is a grass specialist and lost so many opportunities to the weather. He and Anthony Dutrow each won two of the meet's first nine Grade 1 races (and Clement was scheduled to run morning-line favorite Funny Moon in Saturday's Coaching Club American Oaks, the 10th and final Grade 1 at the stand). Dutrow took the Ogden Phipps with Seattle Smooth and the Prioress with Cat Moves.

There was exceptional parity in the trainer standings, with 17 different trainers having won between 10 and 23 races heading into closing weekend. The rider standings, however, could not have looked more different: Ramon Dominguez, riding his first full spring-summer meet, was a runaway leader, with 92 victories to Rajiv Maragh's 67 and Jose Lezcano a distant third at 42.

Dominguez and Maragh also ran one-two (by a 140-71 count) during the first four months of the year at Aqueduct, and one could argue that all the off-the-turf races made Belmont a lot more like the Big A than usual. It's going to be fascinating to see whether Dominguez and Maragh continue their dominance amid more traditionally summery racing at Saratoga, or whether recent Spa stars such as Edgar Prado and Cornelio Velasquez can rebound from disappointing Belmont meets, where both were winning at only a 12 percent clip.

The opening-day Saratoga card was drawn Friday, and it looks like a doozy: 134 horses in 10 races, including 13 2-year-old fillies in the Schuylerville. Those 134 entries include 15 also-eligibles and nine main-track-onlies in the optimistically carded five turf races - just in case the weather doesn't cooperate.

OTB dispute continues to damage

The sourest memory of the Belmont meeting, for horseplayers among Nassau County's 1.3 million residents, will be the absence of the Belmont simulcast signal from in-home television.

Nothing has changed since June 3, when Belmont officials turned off its signal to the Nassau County Offtrack Betting Corporation in a dispute over OTB's unauthorized streaming of the signal on its website last winter. At the time this seemed like a minor skirmish that would be resolved in a few days before the Belmont Stakes, or at least in a few weeks before Saratoga began, but both sides have only hardened their positions. Belmont officials say they will maintain the shutoff until OTB acknowledges that it deliberately pirated the signal for its website. OTB officials say they inadvertently streamed the signal, and have sued the track and its officials for $30 million in damages.

Meanwhile, horseplayers remain in the dark, handle is declining, and it's a safe bet that more and more Long Islanders who can't make the trip to Saratoga will simply stop playing the races without the signal. Regardless of who's right or wrong, the signal should be turned back on pending resolution of a dispute that customers could not care less about but for which they are being punished.