07/28/2009 11:00PM

Spa gets off to a rousing start

Barbara D. Livingston
Hot Dixie Chick, ridden by Robby Albarado, dominates the opening-day feature, the Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Though sunshine eventually gave way to rain, Mother Nature couldn't dampen a robust opening day at Saratoga.

A crowd of 25,444 ushered in the 141st season, an increase of 40 percent over last year's crowd of 18,127. The ontrack crowd wagered $3,651,221, an increase of 30 percent over last year's $2,813,982. All-sources handle was $14,216,133, an increase of 24 percent over last year's $11,431,845.

There were 96 betting interests on Wednesday's card, compared with 69 betting interests last year when the races were run over a sloppy main track and all five turf races were moved to the main track. Wednesday, only the nightcap was moved from the turf to the dirt because of rain.

"It was a great day all around," said Charles Hayward, the New York Racing Association's president and chief executive officer.

The highlight of the day was Hot Dixie Chick's 6 1/4-length romp in the Grade 3, $111,000 Schuylerville Stakes for juvenile fillies. After showing blazing speed in her first two starts - including setting a track record at Churchill Downs for five furlongs - Hot Dixie Chick demonstrated the ability to rate in the Schuylerville.

After dueling for the early lead with the maiden Stormandaprayer, Hot Dixie Chick's rider Robby Albarado let that horse go and tipped his mount to the outside after an opening quarter in 22.02 seconds. Hot Dixie Chick stalked Stormandaprayer through a half-mile in 45.50, before taking charge turning for home and drawing off to the convincing score. Beautician finished second, 6 3/4 lengths ahead of Cowgirl Mally.

Hot Dixie Chick, a daughter of Dixie Union, covered six furlongs in 1:10.18 and returned $5.30 as the favorite.

"Very proud of the race Robby rode under the circumstances with her going straight to the lead and running so fast last time, to have the confidence in her to let that filly clear, move to the outside, and ride her as well as he did," said Asmussen, who also saddled the last-place finisher, Kinsolving.

Asmussen trains Hot Dixie Chick for Barbara Banke's Grace Stables. Banke is the wife of Jess Jackson, who owns superstar filly Rachel Alexandra.

It was the second straight year that Asmussen won the Schuylerville, having taken it with Jardin last year. That race was run in the slop after a day-long deluge. This year's race was also run in the rain, though the track was labeled fast for the race.

"It's a good tradition," Asmussen said of standing in the winner's circle in the rain following the opening-day feature. "If we have something in it next year and it's sunny I'll just go get a hose."

Wednesday's opener began under hot, humid, but sunny conditions. As has become an annual Spa tradition, track announcer Tom Durkin exhorted the crowd to help with a "And they're off at Saratoga," call and 1:40.51 later, Good Prospect crossed the finish line first under Alan Garcia, who was the leading rider at this meet last year. Garcia won two races on the card, as did Albarado.

"That's always a good start," said Garcia, who added that winning a Saratoga riding title "means a lot to everybody."

The first impressive performance of the meet was turned in by Gold Trippi, who rallied from well off the pace to win the $73,950 James Marvin Stakes by one-half length over Pyro. In his first start since last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Pyro looked home free at the sixteenth pole before Gold Trippi came with a flying finish to run him down in 1:23.75 for seven furlongs.

"I thought maybe because there was so much speed it might help him, but that's a big effort for him," said Stanley Hough, the trainer of Gold Trippi. "He finished great.''

Trainer Bill Mott celebrated his 56th birthday like he has celebrated so many before it - with a victory at Saratoga. That win came when the 2-year-old Come From Behind scored a front-running victory in the fifth. It marked the ninth time since 1994 that Mott has won a race at Saratoga on his birthday.

"It's part of nature's plan," Mott said.

Also part of nature's plan is rain at Saratoga. Thankfully, it held off until 3:30 p.m. after the first five races - including three on the turf - had been run. Unfortunately, the last race on the card was moved to the turf, though that decision was made after the late pick four had started. Bettors alive in that wager were given an "all-win" for the last leg because of the change of surface. The same circumstances applied for the pick six.

The worst news of the day came in the fourth race when Alexandros was pulled up entering the backside of a turf allowance race. He sustained two fractured sesamoids and had to be euthanized.

"He never had a pimple on him in his life," said Del Carroll, the trainer of Alexandros. "He was the soundest horse in the barn."

Whitley, the third-place finisher in that race, was also vanned off with an injury to his left front suspensory, according to Anthony Verderosa, NYRA's chief examining veterinarian.