Updated on 07/22/2011 7:24PM

Saratoga opener beats the heat; handle up

Barbara D. Livingston
Although hot, the weather for Friday’s Saratoga opener was not as bad as originally feared, and the card was run as scheduled.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Beads of sweat replaced pellets of rain on people's foreheads, and bottled water may have been more advisable than a can of beer as the refreshment of choice to beat the heat, but in the end opening day of Saratoga's 143rd season was pretty cool.

Despite dire forecasts of oppressive conditions, Friday's opening-day card went off as planned and extremely smoothly. For the first time since 2007, all dirt races were run over a fast main track and no turf races were forced to be run on the dirt.

Yes, it was hot Friday - 92 degrees at post time and 94 degrees by the middle of the card. But the humidity level was tolerable and a westerly breeze of about 12 miles per hour was often a welcome reprieve.

"Obviously, from yesterday to today it was a much better day," said jockey John Velazquez, who won the featured Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes with Georgie's Angel. "It was still a hot day but not as bad as yesterday. The breeze was better. It was really hot, but you could deal with it."

The conditions may have kept the crowd down somewhat, but 25,155 still helped christen the 143rd Saratoga season. The figure was up 8.5 percent from last year's figure of 23,178 when wet conditions prevailed and forced three of the day's five turf races to the dirt. Friday's attendance figure was on par with the 25,444 who showed up in 2009.

Ontrack handle Friday was $3,551,745, a 13.4 percent increase over last year's handle of $3,130,756. An additional $407,383 was wagered on Saratoga at Belmont Park and Aqueduct, which were both open for simulcasting.

All-sources handle, which includes wagers made from all simulcast outlets, was $15,871,449, up 18.9 percent from the $13,349,050 wagered last year. Saratoga may have benefited from the cancellation of live racing at several tracks in the Northeast because of extreme weather, including Monmouth Park.

The New York Racing Association's president and CEO, Charles Hayward, called the opening-day numbers "encouraging."

On Thursday, when the temperature was in the mid to upper 90's in this region, there was some fear that Friday's opening-day card would be in jeopardy. But by 7 a.m. Hayward ended speculation by simply saying, "We're running."

Fans began lining outside the gates as early as 3 a.m., waiting for the 7 o'clock opening so they could secure their picnic tables.

Bob Lopresti, a 28-year-old local resident, said he has been coming to opening day since he was 13 years old, first as an employee and more recently as a fan. He and his posse were setting up their picnic area shortly after 7 a.m., complete with Nerf basketball net stapled to a tree.

"As long as they were racing, and if even if they weren't racing, we were planning to be here,'' Lopresti said. "We got more water than usual mixed in with the beer, and hopefully we'll take home some cold, hard cash."

The day went off without a hitch as none of the 90 horses who ran appeared to pull up in any distress. It was uncomfortable at times, but not intolerable.

In an effort to combat the heat and for the welfare of the horses, there were 17 locations where hoses were made available to wash down horses before or after a race, according to trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association. There were six locations where buckets of ice were available to use on horses if need be, and six locations where bottled water was made available to hotwalkers and grooms.

Also, post parades were shortened to 6 or 7 minutes as opposed to 10 or 12.

Longshots prevailed on the day, resulting in a pick six carryover of $67,938 heading into Friday's card.

The biggest longshot was Pure Gossip ($76), a first-time starter by Pure Prize owned and bred by Flying Zee Stable. Carl Lizza, the head of Flying Zee, died two weeks ago, but the stable will be carried on by his widow, Viane.

"He would have been thrilled to win on opening day with a 2-year-old," she said. "I didn't expect it. I said, `My God the rail just opened up,' and I saw her coming through. I never thought she'd come through like that. Very happy."

From management to fans, very happy summed up the day.