07/23/2007 12:00AM

Saratoga dreamin'


Other than the political battle going on behind the scenes for control of New York's major racetracks, not much ever changes at historic Saratoga, which is hosting its 139th race meeting.

The antique wooden grandstand does have a new copper roof and there are surely some additional creature comforts that will be appreciated by the hundreds of thousands of fans who will attend the 36-day meet that began July 25.

Realistically, horseplayers probably will be most grateful that Saratoga's high-class schedule of 47 stakes races and dozens of high-class maiden and allowance races for royally bred 2-year olds will be contested on a traditional dirt racing surface. (Read that as not contested on a synthetic track such as the one in play at Del Mar, where form is being turned on its ear.)

Saratoga horseplayers know they also will have the luxury of an exceedingly deep and diverse jockey colony and a wealth of highly accomplished, familiar trainers, many of whom specifically point to Saratoga.

Among a few subtle changes that have been layered into this Saratoga season are two that may increase the number of horses per race as well as the number of well - prepared contenders to consider in many of the meet's Grade 1 events.

* A bold 13 percent increase in purses introduced at Belmont in July, is being continued at Saratoga. For example non-claiming maidens will run for $62,000 per race and the daily average for Saratoga purses will be more than $771,000 compared to $678,841 last year.

* On select weekend cards - including Saratoga's first Saturday - some graded events are to be grouped together in response to the Breeders' Cup rule change that offers a guaranteed "win and you're in" ticket to selected Breeders' Cup races.

On Saturday, July 28, for example, Saratoga will host four such races, all of which will be televised nationally by ABC:

* The Grade 2, $200,000 Vanderbilt Stakes is sure to attract contenders for the $2 million BC Sprint, including the familiar speedster Attila's Storm.

H The Grade 1, $250,000 Go for Wand will include the well-traveled Ermine and the locally based Teammate and Miss Shop, both trained by venerable Allen Jerkens, who has been a Saratoga force for more than 40 years. To the winner will go a ticket to the $2 million BC Distaff.

* The Grade 1, $500,000 Diana is for fillies and mares pointing to the $2 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Among the probable starters are the improving Magnificent Song and Makderah, as well as familiar Grade 1 performers My Typhoon and Karen's Caper.

* The Grade 1, $750,000 Whitney Handicap is for horses seeking a ticket to the $5 million BC Classic, including Awesome Twist, Diamond Stripes, Dry Martini, Flashy Bull and a trio trained by three-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher: Fairbanks, Lawyer Ron, and Magna Graduate.

In recent years, Pletcher has been an irrepressible factor in Saratoga's estimated 70 races for juveniles. But, just as we saw in 2006, Pletcher is likely to be challenged by a strong contingent of juveniles trained by Steve Asmussen. Armed with the progeny of precocious first-year sire Posse, Asmussen has been a prolific winner of 2-year old races in Kentucky this year.

Other familiar trainers with good 2-year-olds pointing for this meet include Rick Violette, Kiaran McLaughlin, John Kimmel, Nick Zito, Stanley Hough, Gary Contessa, Barclay Tagg, and Allen Jerkens and his son Jimmy Jerkens.

While the $1 million Travers stakes always is the centerpiece of this historic meet, the 138th renewal on Aug.o25 may provide a sensational showdown between Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and Preakness winner Curlin.

For almost a century Saratoga has been known notoriously as the "Graveyard of Favorites." But in recent years one measure of form - the winning percentage of favorites - has been at or above the national average of 32 percent. Yet, the graveyard label slapped on Saratoga has been fairly earned. Indeed, this track has been the forum for some of the most shocking upsets in racing history - from Man o' War's lone career defeat by the aptly named Upset in the 1919 Sanford to the defeat of 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox by 100-1 shot Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers to 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat's defeat by the older Onion in the '73 Whitney. No doubt 2007 will bring a few similar head-scratching results in prestigious Saratoga races.

As for the racing surfaces, the nine-furlong dirt track plays well toward speed types in two-turn affairs that begin near the finish line, and the same is true for turf races contested on the narrower, tighter-turning inner course, which measures about 7 1/2 furlongs. The outer Mellon turf course, which is slightly longer than one mile, plays more toward traditional stretch-runners, but it too can accent front-runners and pace-pressers if rain is scarce or when the grass begins to wear down late in the meet.

Otherwise, Saratoga turf races tend to be won by strong finishers, especially those that have performed well against classier competition. On the turf, trainers Graham Motion, Billy Mott, Christophe Clement, and Bobby Frankel can send out horses who match up well against Pletcher's best in stakes or allowance races.

Other trainers likely to be sending out live horses at Saratoga include Shug McGaughey, Wally Dollase, Neil Howard, Michael Matz, Carl Nafzger, Ian Wilkes, Ralph Nicks, Helen Pitts, Tim Ritchey, Jonathan Sheppard, Michael Trombetta, Tom Voss, and Ronny Werner.

The jockey colony is quite strong this summer, with 2006 Saratoga meet leader Edgar Prado facing stiff challenges for a repeat from John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Cornelio Velasquez, Julien Leparoux, Eibar Coa, Kent Desormeaux, Ramon Dominguez, and Javier Castellano. The vastly improved Alan Garcia and steady Mike Luzzi are also certain to get live mounts, while Kentucky-based Rafael Bejarano and Calvin Borel are expected to ride here too.

In dirt sprints, tactical speed usually is a big plus, but there are days when deep closers and rally-wide runners can become difficult to defeat. It also is true that Saratoga's main track in general has played a few ticks slower and more tiring in recent seasons, which suggests that stalkers and midpack stretch-runners might have an advantage they have not had since the mid-1960s when Saratoga was a deep, relatively slow track. Obviously, it will be important to watch races for shifting trends that may also be reflected by the relative speed of this year's track.