Updated on 09/16/2011 7:19AM

Spring-summer meeting begins


ELMONT, N.Y. - Last Oct. 27, just 46 days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center rocked New York City and a nation, nearby Belmont Park hosted the Breeders' Cup, Thoroughbred racing's richest event. An international crowd of 52,987 gathered on a crisp autumn afternoon, and the event went off flawlessly.

The mood figures to be far less somber or celebratory, and the crowd figures to just be far less when Belmont opens its doors Wednesday for a 55-day spring/summer meet that runs through July 21. Belmont will offer free grandstand admission and free general parking on opening day.

Belmont will conduct racing Wednesdays through Sundays with first-race post time at 1 p.m. except on Fridays when Belmont hosts Sunset Racing with a first post of 3 p.m.

The spacious 12-furlong Belmont track means all dirt races from five furlongs to nine furlongs will be contested around one turn. Two expansive turf courses should allow for more variety in the day-to-day cards than New York horseplayers have been accustomed to the last 6 1/2 months at Aqueduct.

Belmont will host 40 stakes worth $8.225 million, highlighted as always by the $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third leg of Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, to be held June 8.

A crowd of 73,857 turned out last year to watch Point Given romp to a 12 1/4-length victory in the Belmont. It was the fourth-largest Belmont Stakes Day crowd, proving that a Triple Crown does not need to be at stake for the Belmont to become an event.

The Belmont backstretch is bursting with top-notch horseflesh. Shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, several top horses from Eclipse Award winning trainer Bobby Frankel's stable arrived and took up residence in barn 2. They included Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Medaglia d'Oro, Santa Anita Oaks winner You, and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic winner Beat Hollow.

Two barns away is where 18 head owned by Godolphin Racing Inc. are housed. Among the notables are Dubai World Cup winner Street Cry, Dwyer winner E Dubai, and stakes winners Essence of Dubai and Express Tour.

Trainer Neil Drysdale has a handful of horses, including Bella Bellucci and Sunday Break.

If the remaining 39 stakes are as competitive as Wednesday's $100,000, Grade 3 Westchester Handicap, it will be an exceptional meeting. An evenly matched field of 10 was entered for the one-mile race.

Windsor Castle figures to go off a slight favorite, coming off a neck loss to John Little in the Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap on April 6. Windsor Castle earned a lifetime best 110 Beyer Speed Figure in that race. The chance of him regressing and his preference for two-turn races make him somewhat vulnerable in this spot.

"I like two turns for him," trainer Frank Alexander said, "but I don't really anticipate any problems with a nice post, and he's training well."

Windsor Castle, who is 0 for 5 at Belmont, will break from the outside post under Robbie Davis.

The horse to beat may be Free of Love, who still seeks his first stakes win after narrowly missing a 29-1 upset in last summer's Jim Dandy.

Free of Love began the year with a solid allowance win at Gulfstream Park, but put in lethargic efforts in the Donn Handicap and Cr?me Fraiche Handicap. Trainer Rick Violette has put blinkers on Free of Love in the morning and the 4-year-old colt has responded with several solid workouts at Aqueduct. Violette has also tabbed Bailey to ride.

"I'm just hoping the blinkers would put him on his toes and let the rider put him where he wants to put him with not a whole lot of effort,' Violette said. "I'm hoping not to make him too aggressive, I'd like to see him fall right behind the speed and attack when ready."

There is plenty of speed in this field, including Dayton Flyer (4 for 8 at Belmont), Open Sesame (4 for 10 at Belmont), Tempest Fugit, and King's Messenger. Another closer with a chance is Griffinite.