07/24/2005 11:00PM

Sunbeam amid NYRA's cloudy future

Saratoga opens its 2005 race meet on Wednesday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - With its business in decline, morale at an all-time low, and many of its equine stars retired or sidelined, the New York Racing Association is in need of a pick-me-up that only six weeks in Saratoga can provide.

Thus, Wednesday's opening of Saratoga's 137th season couldn't come at a better time for the beleaguered NYRA, which faces an uncertain future on many fronts. In less than a month, NYRA will find out if it will avoid prosecution by the federal government for tax fraud and conspiracy charges handed down in December 2003.

That decision, due by Aug. 23, will also determine whether NYRA has any chance to retain the franchise to run racing at Saratoga, Aqueduct, and Belmont beyond 2007, when its current franchise expires.

Some of the reforms implemented have created a rift between management and horsemen, most recently the unexpected and unexplained firing of longtime racing secretary Mike Lakow.

At Belmont Park, NYRA instituted a race-day security barn to curb the administration of banned medication. Horses were required to be in that barn six hours before racing. A similar setup will be in place at Saratoga, where permanent and mostly temporary structures will be able to house 110 horses.

Saratoga's rich stakes schedule - there are 45 stakes worth more than $10 million - is topped by the $1 million Travers on Aug. 27. But with Afleet Alex seemingly towering over the 3-year-old division, the Travers may not even be the best race on that day's card. The $250,000 King's Bishop, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds, is expected to match beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Bellamy Road against undefeated Lost in the Fog.

The return of Bellamy Road will be highly anticipated and much needed given the number of top horses who were injured during the Belmont spring meet. Defending Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and developing handicap star Eddington were retired because of injury. Blues and Royals, a 3-year-old owned by Godolphin Racing, was euthanized, and Oratory, the Peter Pan winner, suffered a broken leg.

While there may be fewer equine stars seen at this meet, the human element will be strong. The addition of Rafael Bejarano, Ramon Dominguez, Gary Stevens, and Eibar Coa makes this the deepest Saratoga jockey colony in years. John Velazquez has set records for wins the past two years, but will be hard pressed to duplicate the 65 winners he put up last year. Edgar Prado may be favored to win the riding title, coming off his 85-win performance at Belmont.

Dale Romans and Neil Howard lead the usual invasion of Kentucky-based trainers. Steve Margolis will have 12 stalls here, and Mid-Atlantic horsemen Tim Ritchey, John Servis, and Robert Bailes will also have small strings here. All trainers must try and catch Todd Pletcher, who has won 35 races each of the past two summers.

The allure of Saratoga has always been the 2-year-olds. In 2003, Birdstone debuted here and came back a year later to win the Belmont Stakes and Travers. Last summer, Afleet Alex set a stakes record in the Sanford, then won the Hopeful. When he captured the Preakness, Afleet Alex became the first Hopeful winner since Summer Squall (1989) to win a Triple Crown race.

Trainer Steve Klesaris sent out four debuting 2-year-old winners at Belmont and will saddle Cat Criminal in Wednesday's fifth race, the first maiden 2-year-old event of this meet. Klesaris likes Cat Criminal, but believes this son of Tale of the Cat wants farther than the 5 1/2 furlongs he gets in this spot. Winning Minister, a troubled third at 3-5 in his debut, is a contender as are the $1 million 2-year-old in training purchase Overland Trail and the Todd Pletcher-trained Velvet Cat.

Klesaris, Pletcher, and Mark Hennig have the marquee horses in Wednesday's featured Grade 2, $150,000 Adirondack Stakes for juvenile fillies at six furlongs. Klesaris sends out the coupled entry of Cajun Mistress and Little Miss Zip, who won on back-to-back days in mid-June at Belmont. , a daughter of City Zip, won by 7 1/4 lengths.

"Cajun Mistress dealt with more in her race - she got bounced off the rail down the backside three different times," Klesaris said. "She had to overcome a lot.

"The way the City Zip filly did it was very impressive. She set down nice fractions and drew off with authority. The two of them got ready together, and when they came to the races I thought they were very close in terms of talent."

Pletcher sends out Adieu, who is 2 for 2 after a maiden win at Keeneland in April and a determined 1 1/4-length score in the Astoria Stakes on July 3. In between, Adieu missed time due to a splint bone injury.

In winning the Astoria, Adieu repelled an early challenge from Folklore. Those two are likely to duel again in the Adirondack, as Folklore drew the rail and Adieu has post 2.

Fifth Avenue beat Folklore in a May 18 maiden race and won Belmont's Fashion Stakes by a nose after chasing the pace.