05/01/2005 11:00PM

A step forward in season 100


The New York Racing Association, facing an uncertain future, will celebrate its glorious past while taking unprecedented steps to ensure the integrity of its present when the Belmont Park spring meet opens Wednesday.

This marks the 100th anniversary of Belmont Park, a milestone that will be celebrated in various ways during the 60-day spring-summer session, which runs through July 24. Wednesday's nine-race card - highlighted by the $100,000 Westchester Handicap - will feature race calls from several different former and current NYRA announcers, including Marshall Cassidy, who called here from 1979-1990.

Also on Wednesday, NYRA will offer free general parking, free general admission, and reduced clubhouse admission, as well as reduced prices on selected concessions. Daily Racing Form will cost only $1 on track.

Of most significance Wednesday, however, is the introduction of a race-day security barn, to which horses entered for each card must report a minimum of six hours before their race. In becoming the first Thoroughbred association to institute such a facility, NYRA is hoping to curb the administration of illegal medications while increasing customer confidence.

"It is important that everyone understands that this is a positive step aimed at removing any hint of impropriety, so that those who race and wager on horses at Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Saratoga can do so with the highest level of confidence," said Charles Hayward, the president and CEO of NYRA.

In addition to earning the horseplayers' confidence, NYRA is seeking to regain the trust of politicians in Albany, who next year will begin the process of opening up the bidding process for the NYRA franchise. NYRA's franchise expires on Dec. 31, 2007.

The decision to have a security barn has created mixed emotions among horsemen, many of whom will incur added expense and inconvenience to comply with a new rule they feel is aimed at a select few.

Belmont will host 40 stakes races, including nine Grade 1 events. The highlight, as usual, will be the 137th running of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. The Belmont, which drew a record crowd of 120,129 last year for Smarty Jones's failed Triple Crown bid, will be run June 11.

This year's Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, run May 30, is expected to mark the seasonal debut of Ghostzapper, the reigning Horse of the Year.

The stakes action kicks off Wednesday with the Grade 3 Westchester, which drew a competitive field of eight, including last year's winner, Gygistar, as well as Value Plus and Swingforthefences. Gygistar has only won once since then, taking a classified allowance race by 5 1/2 lengths on March 11. Most recently, he finished second behind Value Plus in the Artax Handicap.

Value Plus was most impressive winning the Artax and may finally be ready to fulfill the potential his connections had him for him earlier in his career.

"It was a career best from all standpoints, but he's run some very good races in the past, so I don't think it was one of those so far off the charts for him that he can't rebound off it," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "We're hoping now that he's an older, physically stronger, mentally more mature kind of horse that he can start to put these races together."

Swingforthefences came off a lengthy layoff to win a third-level allowance race at Keeneland on April 8, and trainer Rick Violette said he is hopeful that was the start of a big campaign.

Jerry Bailey rode Swingforthefences at Keeneland. According to Violette, "He thought he had something left in the tank.

"It was a great comeback race; he's trained well since then," Violette said. "A flat mile may be the right game for him."

Shaun Bridgmohan will ride Swingforthefences from post 8.

Adding depth to the field are Wando, the 2003 Canadian Triple Crown winner; Unforgettable Max, the 5-year-old full brother to Afleet Alex; and the improving Bahama John.

At a glance: Belmont

RACING SCHEDULE: 60 days; Wednesday through July 24; dark Mondays and Tuesdays, except Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day) and Monday, July 4. Dark Wednesdays June 2 and July 6.

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Eastern on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, except June 11 (Belmont Stakes Day), noon. 3 p.m. on Fridays, except June 10, 1 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: General, $2; clubhouse, $5. Belmont Stakes Day: General, $10; clubhouse $20. Children 12 and under admitted free when accompanied by adult.

PARKING: General, $2; preferred, $4; valet, $6. Belmont Stakes Day: General, $10; preferred, $25; no valet.

LOCATION: 2150 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont, NY 11003; exit 26D off Cross Island Parkway.

PHONE: (516) 488-6000.

INTERNET: www.nyra.com

Meet Highlights

May 30Metropolitan Handicap (G1)$750,000
June 4Acorn (G1)250,000
June 11Belmont Stakes (G1)1,000,000
June 11Manhattan Handicap (G1)400,000
June 18Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1)300,000
June 25Mother Goose (G1)300,000
July 2Suburban Handicap (G1)500,000
July 9Prioress (G1)250,000
July 23Coaching Club American Oaks (G1)500,000