07/22/2008 12:00AM

Spa has tough act to follow

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Barbara D. Livingston
The New York Racing Association enjoyed a record 2007 Saratoga season.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Even while fighting a battle to retain its franchise, the New York Racing Association enjoyed a record 2007 Saratoga season. Now, with the franchise issue behind it - save for the finalization of some documents - NYRA has a new foe to deal with entering the 140th Saratoga stand that begins Wednesday.

A downtrodden economy and gas prices lingering around $4.25 a gallon could keep some people away from the upstate cathedral known as Saratoga, which will conduct racing for 36 days through Sept. 1. But NYRA's president and chief executive officer, Charlie Hayward, isn't as concerned about the economy as much as he is Mother Nature.

"I think we temper our expectations against the weather really more than the gas," Hayward said. "Saratoga is such a unique experience for people. Whether you live in the capital district or whether you live in suburban Chicago, I think people will find their way there. So I think our business will hold up well and I think the biggest driver will be weather and not the economy."

The forecast for Wednesday's 10-race card - which includes five turf races - calls for a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.

With the exception of Travers Day, when it was brutally hot, the weather last year was phenomenal. Saratoga ran a record 164 races on turf, a surface that usually produces higher field sizes than dirt, meaning more betting handle. Ontrack handle was a record $123 million, while all-sources handle was a near-record $583 million.

"If gas was 29 cents a gallon we'd be hard-pressed to replicate our numbers from last year," Hayward said.

Some believed that 2007 was going to be the last Saratoga meet run by NYRA. But five months ago, NYRA was granted a 25-year franchise extension by the state legislature. The sudden resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer in March began a chain of events that has held up the completion of the deal. Among the holdups is a transfer of lease agreements between NYRA and the state to the land upon which Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga sit. That may not get done until the state selects an operator of the slots project at Aqueduct, Hayward said. NYRA is working under a sixth temporary extension that goes through Aug. 28, four days before the meet ends.

Last year, Street Sense stabled in Saratoga and became the first Kentucky Derby winner to run in the Travers in 12 years. Big Brown, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness this year, will remain stabled at Aqueduct and is targeting the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on Aug. 3 for his next race. An appearance in the Aug. 23 Travers is possible, but unlikely. Da' Tara, who won the Belmont Stakes, is pointing to the Travers.

Hayward noted that it was at Saratoga where Big Brown made his debut last year, taking a maiden race on turf on closing day.

"The great thing about Saratoga is the unknown," Hayward said. "Who knew the last day of the meet a horse running a mile and a sixteenth on the turf is going to win by 11 and convert to be this huge Triple Crown contender? If you would have told me there was going to be an exciting stretch duel in the Travers between Street Sense and whomever, Grasshopper would not have been in the top 10."

There is plenty of unknown regarding this year's meet. The race for leading jockey and trainer seems more wide open than in years past. Cornelio Velasquez won last year's riding title by one victory over Kent Desormeaux, while Bill Mott won a personal-best 27 races, dethroning the five-time consecutive leading trainer, Todd Pletcher.

Eibar Coa, Alan Garcia, and Rajiv Maragh were the top three riders at the Belmont meet. Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano were within three wins of each other at Belmont. Richard Migliore returns to Saratoga after riding last summer in Del Mar. Robby Albarado, Julien Leparoux, and Jamie Theriot are in from Kentucky.

Kiaran McLaughlin looks loaded to make a run at the training title, but he tabs Pletcher and Mott as the favorites coming off subpar Belmont meets.

Wednesday's Grade 3, $100,000 Schuylerville Stakes for 2-year-old fillies is the first of 31 graded stakes events to be run at the meet. A field of 11 was entered, led by Ocean Colors, a daughter of Orientate out of the Kentucky Derby-winning mare Winning Colors, who was euthanized earlier this year.

Ocean Colors won her debut by 5 1/4 lengths at Churchill, running five furlongs in 57.08 seconds.

"I thought she was pretty much in hand and still ran that fast," said Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen.

Ocean Colors, who blew out three furlongs in 38.43 seconds over a sloppy Saratoga training track Monday morning, will have to deal with the rail in the Schuylerville.

"She broke really well at Churchill, but they are 2-year-olds - you just hope you get away cleanly and the rest will sort itself out," said Blasi, who will also send out debut winner Jardin from post 11.

Collegiate was a smart-looking debut winner for trainer Mark Hennig, who noted he was surprised how well his filly handled five furlongs. Hennig said he was looking forward to the six furlongs of the Schuylerville. Collegiate breaks from post 3 under Edgar Prado.

Other contenders include Boom Town Sally, Girlfrienontheside, and Mani Bhavan.