07/21/2010 3:06PM

Saratoga opens 40-day meeting


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – At a time when most racetracks are contracting their racing schedule – either by force or design – Saratoga is about to conduct its longest race meet in 128 years.

The 142nd Saratoga season, which gets under way Friday with a 10-race card, will be 40 days long, equaling the number of dates run in 1882. After four consecutive cards through Monday, racing will be conducted on a six-day-a-week schedule (Tuesdays dark) through Labor Day, Sept. 6. This is the first expansion of the Saratoga meet since it went to 36 days from 34 in 1997.

The longer meet comes at a time when the horse population and the quality of racing are down nationwide. Few, if any, jurisdictions can maintain a six-day race week, one that will likely consist of 58 races.

Trainer Rick Violette believes Saratoga can sustain the longer schedule, especially better than Belmont Park.

“There is a bottom-line aspect to the industry that just can’t be ignored,” said Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “When people start talking less is more, you have to have more than one sentence to make that work. The numbers have to show it; it has to be real cause and effect and not just a nice saying.”

Violette added that cutting the Saratoga schedule to a five-day week means “leaving too much on the table.”

Charles Hayward, NYRA’s president and CEO, acknowledges that the Saratoga product will consist of more cheaper claiming races than in the past but added that in the late 1980s and early 1990s Saratoga ran $10,000 claiming races.

“The good ol’ days weren’t necessarily good,” Hayward said. “And just because they’re cheaper races doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not good races to bet on.”

Last year, Hayward projected a 5 percent decline in business from 2008, but in the end, all-sources handle was down 1.7 percent.

A couple of significant changes could result in larger fields at Saratoga. First is the elimination of the race-day security barn – where horses had to report six hours in advance of their races – which was not only an added expense to horsemen but a deterrent for out-of-state shippers.

Second, the recently instituted uncoupled entry rule that enables horses trained by the same person but owned by different entities to be separate betting interests. Hayward believes that could be a 1 percent boost to handle.

The 2009 meet was blessed with excellent weather. The forecast for Friday’s opening-day card calls for a 50 percent chance of showers and a high in the low 80s. Scattered thunderstorms are in the forecast for the weekend. NYRA is offering free grandstand admission and reduced clubhouse ($2) admission Friday.

There is plenty of star power on the Saratoga backstretch this summer. Reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, who is racing at Monmouth on Saturday, will be based here thereafter and will be strongly considered for the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Aug. 29. That’s the day after the $1 million Travers, which could include Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, Derby runner-up Ice Box, and Belmont runner-up Fly Down as well as a bevy of would-be challengers to the 3-year-old throne, including latecomers Afleet Express, Trappe Shot, Friend or Foe, and A Little Warm.

The Travers is one of 52 stakes on the schedule, with purses totaling $10.825 million. Last year, 48 stakes were carded, offering $11.17 million.

The older male division is considerably strong, led by Quality Road and Blame, both of whom are headed to the Aug. 7 Whitney as is 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Rail Trip, who recently relocated here from Southern California, will most likely skip the Whitney but could run in the Woodward.

Linda Rice made history last summer when she beat Todd Pletcher for the trainer’s title. Pletcher, a six-time leading trainer here, appears loaded to recapture the crown he has not won since 2006. Bill Mott, Richard Dutrow Jr., Kiaran McLaughlin, and Rice also figure prominently.

Ramon Dominguez, who has won nine straight NYRA meet riding titles, heads a deep jockey colony that includes New York regulars Rajiv Maragh, John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Jose Lezcano, Cornelio Velasquez, and Edgar Prado as well as Kentucky-based riders Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Miguel Mena.

The traditional opening-day feature is the Grade 3, $100,000 Schuylerville Stakes for juvenile fillies, which drew a field of seven. However, trainer Wesley Ward said Wednesday that he plans to scratch probable favorite Final Mesa and only run Spa Sunrise in the six-furlong race.

Ward feels Final Mesa, who won her first three races by a combined 20 lengths, needs more time. Spa Sunrise comes off a New York-bred maiden win against colts.

Now, favoritism in the Schuylerville will likely be between Stopspendingmaria and Let’s Get Fiscal. Stopspendingmaria finished third to Schuylerville entrant Show Me the Bling at Monmouth before coming back four weeks later to win a maiden race by seven lengths at Belmont. Stopspendingmaria is running back in 23 days, but Pletcher didn’t feel it necessary to wait for the Adirondack on Aug. 15.

“She’s the kind of filly that’s responded well to her races,” said Pletcher, who seeks his fourth Schuylerville victory. “She’s getting bigger and stronger as we go along; she’s showing the right things in her development.”

Let’s Get Fiscal won her debut by 5 1/2 lenghts at Belmot for Violette and fired a strong five-furlong work over the main track Sunday.

“She’s pretty professional, she’ll do anything,” Violette said. “If there’s a lot of speed in the race, she’ll take dirt.”

The $75,000 James Marvin Stakes for sprinters drew a stellar field headed by Vineyard Haven, who won the Grade 1 Hopeful here in 2008. Graded stakes winners You and I Forever, Cool Coal Man, Le Grand Cru, Friesan Fire, and Atoned are in the field as well.