07/26/2006 12:00AM

Sun-kissed bettors set records


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There was no rain. There were no power surges. And there were virtually no complaints.

All in all, opening day of the 138th Saratoga meet was a big success. In fact, it was a record-setting day business-wise.

Under bright sunshine and with temperatures in the mid-80's, a crowd of 27,346 ushered in the Saratoga season, which kicked off its six-week run on Wednesday. Attendance was slightly up from last year's 25,818. The crowd was larger despite the fact that for the first time the harness track across the street was permitted to show Saratoga's entire card. A total of $52,608 was bet there on the Saratoga card.

Ontrack handle was $3,789,795, a record for opening day, eclipsing the old mark of $3,723,441 which was set in 2002. Total handle was $15,533,027, eclipsing the opening-day mark of $14,941,864 set in 2002. Last year's opening-day total handle, on a card that included a steeplechase race, was $13,214,599.

"It's unbelievable,'' NYRA senior vice president Bill Nader said. "It's a terrific start to what we hope to be a terrific meet. It was a tremendous day of racing. We're just off to a great start.''

The ontrack crowd saw a number of excellent performances including a solid effort from Cotton Blossom, who won the Grade 3, $111,300 Schuylerville by 1 3/4 lengths over favored Desire to Excel, who stumbled at the start.

Jockey Edgar Prado, the defending leading rider at the meet, got off to a good start with three wins.

The previous two opening days saw spills and injuries. The only spill Wednesday occurred in the Schuylerville when Frances G fell about 100 yards from the wire due to exhaustion. Neither horse nor jockey Calvin Borel was injured.

There were a few glitches. Mutuel clerks were late getting to the windows on the backstretch and the television sets back there were not properly programmed to begin the day. Also, there was a computer glitch that delayed the posting of prices on several races. But compared with last year, when mutuel machines went down several times, this wasn't a big deal.

"All in all we're very pleased,'' NYRA president Charles Hayward said.

Though thunderstorms were forecast for Wednesday, they never came. The skies were relatively clear and the atmosphere festive for the opening of the meet. As is his tradition, track announcer Tom Durkin had the crowd help him get the meet off to a rousing start. As the last two horses were entering the starting gate for opener, Durkin said, "Time has come to start the 138th racing season. Let's light this candle. I will say 'And' and you will say 'They're off at Saratoga.' ''

The eager crowd obliged with a mighty roar as the 11 horses left the starting gate. At the finish, it was Massoud, under John Velazquez who got the win by 4 3/4 lengths.

Only three months ago, Velazquez broke his shoulder and cracked a rib in a spill at Keeneland. At the time, he wasn't even sure he would be able to ride at Saratoga. He was back riding in six weeks.

"It feels great just to be here,'' he said. "Getting one win out of the way is even better.''

Velazquez would get his second win of the day when he guided Cotton Blossom to victory in the Schuylerville. Though inside speed was dominant on the day, Cotton Blossom was four wide down the backstretch and in fifth position early. She advanced into contention around the turn, and took over from pacesetting Chief Officer in upper stretch. Cotton Blossom had plenty left to hold off Desire to Excel, who ran courageously after stumbling badly at the break.

"I was supposed to be following her and I ended up being in front of her after that,'' Velazquez said. "She was going well all the way around the turn. I was just hoping not to move too soon.''

Cotton Blossom, a daughter of Broken Vow owned by Dogwood Stable, covered the six furlongs in 1:11.63 and returned $18.60 to win. She gave Todd Pletcher - who is seeking his fifth straight Saratoga riding title - his first win of the meet.

"Always love to get that first one out of the way,'' Pletcher said. "That's a good one to get the first one in too.''

There were a number of strong performances on the card. Silver Timber set a Mellon Turf Course record by running 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:01.34. That eclipsed the mark of 1:01.46 set last year by Second in Command. Coincidentally, Linda Rice trained both horses.

The first 2-year-old maiden race produced a potential star as City Snitch, a troubled fourth as the 3-5 favorite in his debut at Churchill, rolled to an 11 1/4-length win under apprentice Julien Leparoux. His final time of 1:03.88 was only 0.56 of a second off the track record of 1:03.32 set by Mayakovsky in 2001. Trainer Patrick Biancone said City Snitch would likely to run back in the Saratoga Special on Aug. 17.