12/05/2008 12:00AM

Saratoga stakes schedule gets needed tweaks


NEW YORK - Despite Joe Palmer's famous admonition about Saratoga that "a man who would change it would stir champagne," the New York Racing Association did the right thing last week by revising the upstate stakes schedule for 2009.

It was more of a restoration than a revision, reinstating the premise that every Saturday at the Spa should feature a Grade 1 race. Last year, there was a 14-day gap between the Test on the second Saturday and the Alabama and Sword Dancer on the fourth, including a nine-day gap between graded races of any kind in the middle of the meet. There were 17 straight cards from the first Sunday through the fourth Friday during which only a single Grade 1 race was presented, an extended gap that seemed to dim the meet's energy and left some longtime visitors with a felling that Saratoga wasn't quite Saratoga anymore.

The first step toward spreading things out a bit was breaking up the overcrowded opening Saturday, where the Diana, Whitney, and Go for Wand were run in the space of two hours to accommodate a Breeders' Cup Win and You're In telecast. In 2009, the opening Saturday card will instead feature only the Diana and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, moved up one day, and a strong opening Sunday card will now present the Go for Wand and the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap.

The Whitney has been moved from the first to the second Saturday of the meet, giving it some room to breathe while paired with the Test and still leaving four weeks until the Woodward on closing weekend.

Last year, the third Saturday of the meet had no graded stakes at all, and the card was awkwardly headlined by a quartet of new, no-name overnight stakes races. In 2009, the Sword Dancer has been moved back to this spot instead of being run a week later alongside the Alabama.

The net result is at least one Gradeo1 race every Saturday and a major fixture that defines each of the six weekends: Diana, Whitney, Sword Dancer, Alabama, Travers, and Woodward.

The Saratoga changes were part of an entire 2009 NYRA stakes schedule approved by its board last Wednesday and awaiting certification from the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, presumably in time for the Jan. 1 calendar giveaway. There was mild tinkering with almost every meeting, and a series of overdue purse boosts, some of them in response to the requirement for 2009 that all Grade 1 races offer a purse of at least $300,000. There was only one other major shift involving one of the 40 Grade 1 races (out of 115 nationally) that NYRA puts on: A fascinating 11-week repositioning of the Gazelle for 3-year-old fillies from the Saturday after Labor Day at Belmont to the Saturday after Thanksgiving at Aqueduct.

The change inspires mixed feelings. On the one hand, Grade 1-caliber 3-year-olds really should be taking on their elders in the fall instead of hiding in age-restricted races. If the game ever started from scratch with its Grade 1 calendar, I would advocate knocking all the Grade 1 races for 3-year-olds after Labor Day, a relatively short list, down to Gradeo2's.

In the absence of such a change, you can argue that the Gazelle could work better at the end of November than it has at the beginning of September. This way, it doesn't compete head-to-head with the richer Cotillion at Philadelphia Park, doesn't siphon off fillies who might otherwise run against older in the Ruffian, and it might offer a chance to settle a 3-year-old filly divisional title in a year when older fillies dominate the fall races. It's worth a try, and it's hard to imagine a field less compelling than this year's, when Music Note beat three allowance horses as the 1-20 favorite.

The Ladies Handicap, first run in 1864, is gone, but the Bowling Green is back after a one-year absence and will be run in September as a prep for the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Two new names on the stakes schedule are outstanding choices of worthy honorees: A new race for statebred turf fillies will be named the John Hettinger, honoring the longtime owner, breeder, and horse-welfare advocate who died this year. The Aqueduct Handicap has been renamed the Evening Attire after the popular retired gelding who won the race in 2004 and finished second in it three other times, including earlier this year as a 10-year-old.