05/02/2004 11:00PM

Smarty tops wish list


ELMONT, N.Y. - The buzz may not be the same as last spring when Belmont Park housed the reigning Kentucky Derby winner, but the 60-day spring-summer meet that begins Wednesday should have its share of excitement.

Belmont will race five days a week through July 25 and host 40 stakes worth $8.575 million. Nine of the stakes are Grade 1 events, topped, of course, by the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, scheduled for June 5.

Last year, 101,864 braved the rain and wind to watch Empire Maker deny Funny Cide the Triple Crown in the Belmont. New York Racing Association officials surely are hoping Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones comes to Belmont with that same chance. The Belmont has been run with a Triple Crown on the line five of the last seven years.

Most of the familiar faces New York horseplayers have been accustomed to are back and fully stocked for the spring-summer meet.

Trainer Todd Pletcher could threaten the record of 40 winners he set last season. Pletcher has already begun unveiling his 2-year-olds to go along with a strong group of 3-year-olds (Forest Danger, Limehouse, Value Plus) and older horses (Strong Hope, Speightstown, Lion Tamer). Pletcher has four horses entered on Wednesday's card.

Kiaran McLaughlin had a sensational Belmont last summer, winning with 20 of 47 runners (42.5 percent). Though McLaughlin said he would be hard-pressed to duplicate those numbers, he will have nearly 100 horses stabled between Belmont and Saratoga.

"Last year, everything went right," McLaughlin said. "We had horses that had conditions left. This year, we won many of those conditions in Florida. We should win our share and hopefully have a good meet."

Dale Romans, who went 1 for 7 here last spring, has a barn full of horses this year. Bobby Frankel, who won six of the nine Grade 1 races run here last spring, is back with 40 horses.

The jockey colony will be strong as usual, headed by John Velazquez, Jerry Bailey, and Edgar Prado. Peruvian import Victor Fernandez could be a jockey to watch. Joe Bravo begins the meet here, but is expected to head to Monmouth when that meet opens later this month.

Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, could turn up at Belmont this spring, possibly against males in the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap on May 31.

Though Funny Cide is unlikely to run at this meet, Medaglia d'Oro and Dynever, the two-three finishers in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, could square off in the $500,000 Suburban Handicap on July 3.

A solid field of eight was entered for Wednesday's opening-day feature, the Grade 3, $100,000 Westchester Handicap at one mile. Lion Tamer, a winner of three consecutive seven-furlong races this year, tries to stretch out to a mile against rivals such as Gygistar, Saarland, Formal Attire, and Black Silk.

Lion Tamer paired up Beyer Speed Figures of 105 winning the Richter Scale at Gulfstream Park in March and the Commonwealth at Keeneland in April. He has never won beyond seven furlongs, but his only tries beyond that distance were in two-turn nine-furlong races.

"He's always trained like a horse that will stretch out. This will be a good spot to find out more about that," Pletcher said. "His work at Churchill last Thursday [five furlongs in 1:00.80] went very well, and he shipped in in good shape."

Saarland finished second as the favorite in this race last year and then just missed winning the Met Mile by a neck 19 days later. Saarland underwent throat surgery to correct a breathing problem earlier this year. After a narrow loss in an optional claiming race in March, Saarland has been training uncharacteristically fast lately, including a five-furlong bullet move in 58 seconds last Wednesday.

"His three works since he's been back here have been sensational," said trainer Shug McGaughey, who has Jerry Bailey to ride. "I've never see him do anything like that."

In a race without a true front-runner, Formal Attire could be the one to catch. Formal Attire finished a better-than-it-looked fifth in the Strub in February and has battled a bruised foot for the last two months.

"It took a little bit of time to get it resolved," trainer Phil Serpe said. "Everything's good now."

The last time Gygistar had an outside post for a race, he won the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga. He is only 1 for 7 since, but comes off a decent fourth in the Carter and returns to Belmont, where as a 3-year-old he won the Riva Ridge and Dwyer.