Updated on 09/17/2011 12:01PM

Stage set for superb 135th meet

Off and running at the Spa. Saratoga's 36-day meet begins with the Schuylerville Stakes.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Despite being at the center of a political maelstrom that has included a scathing report from the state's attorney general, whispers of federal indictments, and a soon to be released audit from the state comptroller, New York Racing Association president Terry Meyocks was all smiles Monday morning.

It's hard not to be upbeat when you're about to open the doors on Thoroughbred racing's most lucrative and prestigious race meet. Saratoga commences its 135th season on Wednesday. Expectations are again high as NYRA looks to surpass its daily average all-source handle figure of $16,312,846 from a year ago while hoping to top the million-mark in attendance for the second time in three years.

With the balance of power in racing clearly tilted East, this season has a chance to be the best in Saratoga's storied history. By the time all 1,655 stalls are filled later this week, there will be no less than 44 Grade 1 winners stabled on these hallowed grounds, the majority of whom are expected to see action in the 36 days between Wednesday and Labor Day, Sept. 1.

"There's always been hype at Saratoga,' Meyocks said while leaning against the rail at the finish line of the Oklahoma training track. "But I think it's gone to the next level.'

Of course, the most highly hyped race of the summer will be the $1 million Travers on Aug. 23, which is expected to pit Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide against Belmont, Wood Memorial, and Florida Derby winner Empire Maker. But, the other 34 stakes races are sure to provide some memorable moments as well.

The Grade 1 Whitney Handicap, on Aug. 2, could feature the top three finishers from last year's Breeders' Cup Classic - Volponi, Medaglia d'Oro, and Milwaukee Brew. The Grade 1 Alabama has added drama with Spoken Fur trying to claim New York's filly Triple Tiara.

At the center of every major stakes will be trainer Bobby Frankel, who has won 13 stakes here the past two seasons. He has 12 Grade 1 winners in his barn, 10 of whom are expected to run here.

Todd Pletcher, who set a record for most wins at a Belmont spring-summer meet with 40, seeks his second consecutive Saratoga title. He could threaten Syl Veitch's meet-record of 24 set in 1954 when the meet was only 24 days.

The race for leading rider could be dramatic. Edgar Prado unseated Jerry Bailey last year, but this year's colony is deeper with Churchill invaders Cornelio Velasquez, Pat Day, Robby Albarado, Shane Sellers, and Mark Guidry in the room. John Velazquez, who won the title in 1998, is well stocked as the first-call rider for Pletcher.

The only thing that could put a damper on this meeting is the weather, which last year was miserable. More than 30 turf races were moved to the main track last year and countless more were never written.

As luck would have it, rain is in the forecast through Thursday, impacting not only turf racing, but perhaps Wednesday's feature, the Grade 2, $150,000 Schuylerville Stakes for juvenile fillies. The eight entrants have combined to win 11 of 14 starts.

Last year, Pletcher won the Schuylerville with Freedom's Daughter, who was coming off a monster maiden win at Monmouth a month earlier. This year, Pletcher sends out two monster maiden winners in Hermione's Magic and Ashado. Hermione's Magic ran the fastest five furlongs of the Belmont meet (56.82 seconds) when she won her debut by six lengths. Ashado already demonstrated her ability to handle a wet surface winning a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race by seven in the slop.

Velazquez, who rode both, will ride Hermione's Magic while Prado rides Ashado.

"Hermione's Magic would be the quicker of the two,' Pletcher said. "I would expect her to be on the pace if not the pacesetter in the race. Ashado would be a filly that will eventually settle a little bit off the pace.'

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Schuylerville five times, sends out Be Gentle, who is 2 for 2, including a victory in the Grade 3 Debutante at Churchill Downs. Lukas believes Be Gentle has the speed to take advantage of her rail post draw, but he is concerned about the prospect of an off track.

"I don't know [how she'd handle it] and I don't like the idea of running a baby in the mud,' he said.

Stanley Hough, who won the 1992 Schuylerville with Distinct Habit, sends out Feline Story, who won her maiden in the mud and then the Astoria Stakes on fast footing. Maple Syrple ships down from Woodbine after winning a restricted stakes. Completing the field are Bikini Wiggle, who didn't handle the wet going in the Fashion Stakes, Secret Romance, and Goodies Galore.

At a glance: Saratoga

o DATES: July 23 through Sept. 1. Tuesdays are dark.

o POST TIME: 1 p.m. (Travers Day, Aug. 23, at 12:30 p.m.)

o ADMISSION: $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse. Children under 12 free when accompanied by an adult.

o PARKING: Free general, $7 trackside.

o RESERVED SEATS: $5 grandstand, $8 clubhouse. A limited number of grandstand seats are available for purchase each racing day. Seats can be bought the night before at the downtown Holiday Inn or in the morning at the reserved box office off Union Ave.

o BREAKFAST AT SARATOGA: Each racing day from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. a buffet breakfast is served trackside. Admission to the breakfast is free, except for Travers Day, Aug. 23. Morning visitors may also take a free tram tour of the stable area, watch the paddock show, and view a starting gate demonstration. There are no tram tours on Travers Day and closing day, Sept. 1.

o ACTIVITIES: Family Fun Tent in the track's backyard every Friday. National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located on Union Ave., across from the track; (518) 584-0400. Travers Festival Aug. 16-24: activities to celebrate the 134th Travers. For information, call (800) 526-8970. New York City Ballet at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 23-26, 8:15 p.m. Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 6-23 (Wed.-Sat.), 8:15 p.m. SPAC box office (518) 587-3330. Free handicapping seminars at Siro's before the races every day except Mondays.

o LOCATION: Union Ave. Exit 13N or 14 off I-87 (Adirondack Northway).

o PHONE: (518) 584-6200

o INTERNET: http://www.nyra.com