07/23/2010 4:44PM

Saratoga's opening day hit by rain

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Apparently, Mother Nature didn't get the memo.

In what is becoming an unpleasant tradition, rain was a dominant topic on opening day at Saratoga, dampening the enthusiasm of a water-logged crowd here for the start of the 142nd racing season, which has been expanded to 40 days.

The day-long rain forced three of the five scheduled turf races to be run on the main track, and led to a number of scratches. In 2008, rain forced all five turf races to be run on the dirt. Last year, rain forced one turf race to be moved to the dirt.

Naturally, business took a hit compared to last year when the weather was a mixed bag of sunshine and rain. Friday's attendance of 23,178 was down 8.9 percent from last year's crowd of 25,444. The ontrack handle of $3,130,756 was a 14.3 percent decrease from last year's $3,651,222.

Friday's total all-sources handle of $13,349,050 was down 6.1-percent from last year's $14,216,134.

"There were a lot of people here; when it rained like this two years ago, we had [18,127]," NYRA's president and CEO, Charles Hayward, said. "I was happy with the way the racing fields held together - we had two great stakes. I think it's a good start."

On the second-to-last Friday in July last year, New York racing was conducted at Belmont Park where attendance was 5,695 and total handle was $7,033,787 on a nine-race program.

"We're off a little bit compared to Saratoga, obviously. We're way ahead of where we'd be if we were at Belmont Park on a Friday," Hayward said.

The last time Saratoga opened on a Friday was 1996, when, coincidentally under wet conditions, a crowd of 22,322 showed up for a nine-race card that included the Sanford and Schuylerville Stakes. Ontrack handle was $3,284,234 while total handle was $10,636,874.

Approximately 1 1/2 inches of rain fell beginning at 9:30 a.m. through 6 p.m. The first two races were run on the turf, but races four, five and six were taken off. Still, two of the three races had nine starters and one had eight, triggering a 20-percent purse increase because of field size for all three races.

Vineyard Haven won the $75,000 James Marvin Stakes, splashing his way to a 1 3/4-length front-running victory in his first start since last November's Cigar Mile. In the Grade 3, $100,000 Schuylerville Stakes, Le Mi Geaux rallied from well off the pace to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

One person who didn't mind getting wet was trainer Richard Metivier, who won the first race with Dontstealmyland, who returned $48.60 as the longest-shot in the nine-horse field. It was only Metivier's second starter at Saratoga and first since Eastern Comet finished seventh in a turf race on Sept. 1, 2000.

Metivier, 44, is a native of nearby Glens Falls, and has had horses stabled at Saratoga since the track opened in May. His father was a sportswriter, and Metivier said he caught the racing bug at an early age and became a hotwalker for trainers Stanley Hough and Barclay Tagg. He has been training on his own for 10 years.

"Winning a race at Saratoga is just amazing," Metivier said. "I'm the leading trainer at Saratoga, did you know that?"

Thirty minutes later, he was joined atop the standings by Mike Maker, who won the second with Kathern's Kitten, a 7-1 shot who returned $17.20 The first two winners were ridden by Julien Leparoux, who then promptly finished fifth aboard the favorite, Aspire, in the third race.

Alan Garcia and John Velazquez also won two races.

Trainer Bruce Levine, who went 1 for 48 at last year's meet, won with his first starter, Roderick, who took the off-the-turf fifth race as the 4-5 favorite.

The rain also ruined the opening of the new Shake Shack/Blue Smoke eateries, which were constructed where the paddock tent formerly stood. There is also a bar in the area, near the paddock.

Danny Meyer, the head of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates the eateries, said he is a longtime racing fan who used to come to Saratoga with his grandparents in his youth.

"I'm disappointed only because I would have loved to have seen a sea of people enjoying themselves," Meyer said. "I have a pretty strong hunch it's not going to rain for 40 days and nights."