07/25/2004 11:00PM

Saratoga opens and change is in the air

Saratoga's 136th racing season opens Wednesday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.- Change is all around the New York Racing Association, creating as much anxiety as anticipation for Wednesday's opening of the 136th Saratoga season.

There is a likely change at the top management level as Tim Smith was expected to resign on Tuesday as the commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to take over as the president and CEO at NYRA effective in September. Smith would replace Terry Meyocks, who resigned last fall in the wake of a federal indictment brought against the NYRA for aiding some of its mutuel tellers in a tax evasion scheme.

There is change from a competitive standpoint for the gambling dollar as 1,300 video lottery terminals are located across the street at the harness track. There is a change to the stakes schedule, specifically the elimination of two historic juvenile stakes and the placement of two others.

A change in policy has eliminated the issuance of free passes, which may affect attendance figures, and a change in security policy will prohibit fans from visiting the Oklahoma track during training hours or watching the afternoon's races from the main track's backstretch.

In spite of all these changes, current NYRA management hopes the response from the betting public here and nationwide to the opening of Saratoga will be the same as it has been in years past. Average daily handle from all sources topped $16 million the last two years and daily average attendance was a record 29,147 last summer.

"Every meet is a challenge because expectations are so high," said Bill Nader, senior vice president of the NYRA."The challenge is the ability to deliver on the Saratoga experience and what people expect when they walk onto these hallowed grounds is the highest in the sport. Those are pretty lofty numbers to go against. It's great to be in that position. We can overcome the minor distractions that there might be and provide the fans with a great Saratoga experience."

NYRA would like to see a change in the weather forecast as a flood watch was in effect for this area on Tuesday and showers were also predicted for Wednesday.

Although management saw fit to eliminate the Adirondack Stakes, for juvenile fillies, and the Saratoga Special, for juvenile colts, Saratoga will offer 43 stakes totaling $9.9 million in purse money during the 36-day meet. Eight stakes have been added so that at least one stakes race per day will be offered through closing day, Sept. 6.

As always, the showcase event of the meet is the $1 million Travers for 3-year-olds. Even without the presence of dual-classic winner and local hero Funny Cide, last year's Travers set a record for attendance (66,112). This year's dual-classic winner, Smarty Jones, will skip the Travers, but Marylou Whitney's Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone is pointing to the race, as are Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-ups Lion Heart and Rock Hard Ten.

"There is a very strong group of horses just under Smarty Jones that are going to run in the Jim Dandy and Haskell [at Monmouth Park], and personally I think the Travers is going to be a great race," racing secretary Mike Lakow said.

Last year, Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez seemed to win every race but the Travers. Pletcher set a record for wins by a trainer (35) while Velazquez set a new standard for jockeys with 61 victories.

Both are likely to successfully defend their titles, but will have plenty of competition. With 322 victories already this year, Steve Asmussen is in line to break the single-year mark for wins by a trainer. Last year, he went 8 for 38 at Saratoga, but plans to run more horses this year. Bill Mott has won eight Saratoga training titles and won 17 races last year. Allen Jerkens is coming off a huge Belmont meet with 20 victories.

Velazquez, Jerry Bailey, and Edgar Prado figure to stage a meet-long battle for supremacy in the rider standings. The colony is further strengthened by the additions of Kentucky-based riders Pat Day, Shane Sellers, Robby Albarado and Cornelio Velasquez. Javier Castellano is coming off a super Belmont meet and could be poised for a breakthrough Saratoga meet.

As usual, stakes action commences with the Grade 2, $150,000 Schuylerville for juvenile fillies at six furlongs. Broadway Gold, winner of the Astoria Stakes, is the likely favorite breaking from post 6 under Jerry Bailey. Her ability to relax and take dirt in her face makes her extra dangerous in an 11-horse field with plenty of speed.

"I thought she would show a little more speed in her first race, but she didn't break well," Hough said. "She took dirt, but she caught her horses quickly, which is a good sign."

Darn That Girl and Classic Elegance figure to be the top challengers in the largest Schuylerville field since 1996. However, Darn That Girl stepped on herself during a workout on Saturday and trainer Rick Violette said it would be a "game-time decision" whether she would run. Darn That Girl also has to overcome post 11 "She's tender on it," Violette said Monday. "We'll see how she reacts the next two days. These things can be meaningless or very painful."

Classic Elegance, who won the Debutante at Churchill, must deal with the rail post. Her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, has won this race five times.

After winning the last two runnings of this race, and with more 2-year-olds than almost any other trainer, Todd Pletcher will not have a Schuylerville runner - yet another in a long list of changes at Saratoga 2004.