07/18/2007 11:00PM

Six weeks, simple and sublime

Email

You don't have to look very hard to find bad news in the racing world. On any given day, horseplayers might read about catastrophic injuries and premature retirements, drug scandals, petty industry infighting on most issues, and politics as usual regarding the pending expiration of the New York Racing Association's franchise.

There's no doubt these myriad problems chip away at our collective psyche. But for six glorious weeks at Saratoga, they are overshadowed by the awesome spectacle of the world's best Thoroughbreds doing what they were born to do, in a picturesque setting that recalls a simpler time. To paraphrase the immortal Red Smith: To get to Saratoga Springs from New York City, drive north about 175 miles and go back 100 years.

For a little while, at least, we are reminded of why horse racing is still the greatest game, and why we fell in love with it in the first place.

Two nuggets of good news:

1. NYRA recently announced $1.3 million in capital improvements to the historic 350-acre facility, including a new copper roof; new metal awnings above the 37 television monitors in the backyard picnic area; new betting terminals in the clubhouse fourth-floor restaurant; 7,800 square feet of new flooring in the trackside breakfast area; and a new simulcast area just inside the main gate on Union Avenue, where wagering on races from the United Kingdom will be available each morning at 9:30, except Sundays and Tuesdays.

"People are going to go wild," said NYRA president and CEO Charles Hayward. "This place looks great. It looks better than it has in 10 years."

2. Across-the-board purse increases went into effect for the last three weeks at Belmont Park's spring-summer meet. Saratoga's average daily purses are projected to rise 13.6 percent, from a daily average of $678,841 last year to an estimated $771,535 this year.

"Purse increases are good for horsemen, and they're also good for business," said NYRA chairman Steve Duncker. "Since Saratoga generates our highest ontrack handle, larger fields will increase that handle, and that's good business."

Purses for overnight stakes will be $80,000. Other increases are as follows:

Open allowance$69,000

New York-bred allowance62,000

Maiden special weight 62,000

Maiden N.Y.-bred 57,000

Claiming, $20,00035,000

The racing this summer promises to be intensely competitive. Not only is there a lot of money on the table, but with the exception of the history-making Rags to Riches, who will be champion 3-year-old filly no matter what, leadership of every other division is there for the taking. It won't take long to get a better handle on four of them, because the meet gets off to a turbo-boosted start on the first Saturday, July 28, with a blockbuster card featuring the $750,000 Whitney, the $500,000 Diana, the $250,000 Go for Wand, and the $200,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt. The winners automatically qualify for this year's Breeders' Cup races in their respective divisions.

While the 2006 Travers was a public exhibition for the dominant Bernardini, this year's renewal has the potential to be a riveting showdown between Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, who is also scheduled for the Jim Dandy on the opening Sunday of the meeting, and Preakness winner Curlin, with other prominent 3-year-olds such as Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday, and Nobiz Like Shobiz also pointing to the nation's oldest stakes race for 3-year-olds, which will be run on Aug. 25.

Whether Rags to Riches takes on the boys again remains to be seen, but after missing the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont because of a fever, she is targeted for the Alabama on Aug. 18.

Discreet Cat, the colt who debuted so sensationally at Saratoga as a 2-year-old, and who won the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct last fall in track record-equaling time, is expected to start for the first time since things went awry in the Dubai World Cup back in March.

Rumors swirl that The Green Monkey (drum roll, please) is nearing his long-delayed unveiling. Considering his $16 million price tag, will it be a bad omen if the world's most expensive horse comes onto the racetrack looking like the proverbial million bucks?

Two-year-olds

One of Saratoga's essential joys (and handicapping headaches) is the showcasing of the stars of tomorrow. There are 38 races for

2-year-olds in the first condition book (July 25 through Aug. 13), so handicappers will confront potentially loaded baby races on a daily basis.

As usual, trainers Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen will have full squadrons of juveniles. Among Pletcher's seven 2-year-old winners at Belmont through July 8 were Astoria winner Glacken's Gal and Tremont winner Ready's Image. Asmussen is coming off a record-setting meet at Churchill Downs where he dominated the 2-year-old racing with progeny of first-crop sire Posse.

Several other trainers are also likely to make their presence felt with 2-year-olds:

Nick Zito saddled six 2-year-old debut winners at last year's meet; Stanley Hough originally set Discreet Cat loose upon the racing world at the 2005 meet; and more recently, Rick Violette Jr. and Barclay Tagg each took the wraps off a couple of impressive runners at Belmont. Violette's pair were Fed Watcher, who sped five furlongs in 56.10 seconds on June 30, and Phantom Income, a 10-length winner six days later. Of relevance to handicappers is that both were purchased at the Ocala 2-year-old sale. Pay particular attention to juvenile sales graduates when they make their debuts, especially when their sale price far exceeds the sire's stud fee.

The 2-year-old stakes program consists of the Schuylerville (opening day, July 25), Adirondack (Aug. 15), and Spinaway (Sept. 2) for fillies, and the Sanford (July 26), Saratoga Special (Aug. 16), and Hopeful (Sept. 3) for colts and geldings.

There were 72 races for 2-year-olds last year, an average of two per day. Favorites went 21-72 (29.1 percent).

Graveyard of favorites?

Forget that old saying. Overall, the post-time choice was right around the accepted average in 2006, with a mark of 111-338 (32.8 percent); filter out the babies, and it was 90-266 (33.8

percent).

The year before, favorites were 130-343 (38 percent). In 2003, favorites went 54-113 (48 percent) during the first two weeks, and finished up the meet at 41 percent overall.

Surfaces

The main track is 1 1/8 miles, with a seven-furlong chute. The Mellon (outer) turf course is one mile plus 98 feet. The sharper-turned inner turf is seven furlongs plus 304 feet. The Oklahoma training track is a one-mile oval with a deeper surface than the main, so workout times are generally slower.

Short and long, the main track tends to reward horses with early and tactical speed -- except when it doesn't. John Passero, now in his third year as track superintendent, has gradually increased the loose cushion depth on the top layer of the surface.

"I'm not a handicapper, but if you're trying to run 21 and 44, you're going to get tired," he said.

Last year the main track was noticeably tiring in the long sprints and two-turn routes, and many horses appeared to labor through the stretch. The turf-to-dirt angle was highly productive at seven furlongs, producing otherwise hard-to-figure winners such as Samsincharge ($25.40), Heathrow ($32.60), Knox ($16), D Money ($67), and Rocky Blue ($14.80).

The turf courses carry speed, especially when there is a stretch of hot, dry weather during the early part of the meet. In the aftermath of a soaking rain -- the kind known to arrive at a moment's notice on hot and sticky afternoons -- the emphasis shifts to class, finishing ability, and back form under similar conditions.

Trainers

Let's go out on a limb and predict Todd Pletcher will win his sixth straight title with or without any help from The Green Monkey. Of course, that common knowledge isn't going to get you much in the way of value. Heading into the final two weeks at Belmont, the average mutuel for Pletcher's 31 winners was $6.70, the lowest among the top dozen trainers except for Christophe Clement ($6.40). By contrast, Gary Contessa was tied with Pletcher for the meet lead, but his 31 winners had averaged a $14 payoff.

Among the leaders at Belmont, Mike Hushion ($14.40), Barclay Tagg ($12.90), and Nick Zito ($13.30) were the only other trainers averaging a double-digit mutuel through early July.

Of course, there are some significant changes in the roster. In addition to such well-known trainers as the aforementioned Pletcher, Clement, Hushion, Tagg, and Zito, along with Rick Dutrow Jr., Kiaran McLaughlin, Bruce Levine, Bill Mott, and the Jerkens boys, the following trainers not regularly stabled in New York will have stalls at the Spa: Wally Dollase, Michael Gorham, Eoin Harty, Neil Howard, Eddie Kenneally, H. Graham Motion, Michael Matz, Ron Moquett, Carl Nafzger, Ralph Nicks, Helen Pitts, Tom Proctor, Tim Ritchey, Albert Stall, Jonathan Sheppard, Chuck Simon, Dallas Stewart, Michael Trombetta, Tom Voss, Ronny Werner, and Ian Wilkes.

Jockeys

Edgar Prado won the 2006 title over newcomer Garrett Gomez (46-42), for his second straight Spa riding crown and third overall. They were followed by Cornelio Velasquez, John Velazquez (who was coming off an injury suffered at Keeneland in April), and Julien Leparoux, who established a single-meet record for an apprentice with 28 wins on his way to an Eclipse Award.

It will be interesting to see where Eibar Coa fits into all this. He got off to a horrible start last year before finishing up sixth with 27 wins, but went toe to toe with Prado at Belmont in the spring and fall of 2006, where he bagged 102 combined winners to Prado's 103.

Coa went on to join Steve Cauthen, Angel Cordero Jr., and Mike Smith as the only riders with a 300-win year in New York. He was on a similar pace through the first half of 2007, and was running away with the Belmont spring-summer title.

Ramon Dominguez, who along with Coa has dominated the winter racing scene at Aqueduct the past couple of years, was neck-and-neck with Jeremy Rose for the top spot at Delaware Park through early July. He will leave his home base to ride full time at Saratoga.