07/24/2005 11:00PM

Try to get a jump on the Spa

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NEW YORK - Opening day at Saratoga on Wednesday is one of the most eagerly anticipated racing days of the year, surpassing even opening day of the Santa Anita winter meet and opening day of the Keeneland spring meet. Everyone, handicapper and horseman alike, goes into Saratoga with high hopes and visions of success, because winning at Saratoga, whether on the track or at the windows, is for many just a little bit sweeter than winning anywhere else. Always has been, always will be.

Adding to the anticipation of this Saratoga lid-lifter is that Wednesday's card was drawn early, on Saturday. Daily Racing Form online past performances for this card were available before the sun set on Saturday evening, giving everyone lots of time to do their handicapping and map out betting strategy. It is true that Wednesday is only the first of 36 racing days at Saratoga, meaning it really isn't that short a meet, especially when you compare it with Keeneland, or even the typical fall meet at Belmont Park. But every Saratoga meet tends to fly by, and the Saratoga experience, as great as it is, is so much more enjoyable when you are playing from in front. I have been chasing the Saratoga dragon ever since my father first took me there in 1968, and over the years, the best meets I have had were the ones where I jumped out in front early. Unfortunately, I don't need my fingers and my toes to count how many times that happened.

But it is with getting off to a fast start in mind that I printed out Wednesday's past performances Sunday morning. My printer couldn't spit out the pages fast enough for me. But when I saw the first race PP's, that thud you may have heard was my spirits hitting the floor. The first race of the meet, per Saratoga tradition, is a jump race.

I understand that steeplechase racing is an integral part of the fabric of Saratoga, and I have nothing personal against steeplechase racing. But I just cannot bring myself to bet on these races. I find racing on the flat challenging enough. Throwing 12 to 15 tall obstacles in the path of racing horses and making them leap over them adds another variable - a very big one - that I just don't wish to deal with.

Fortunately, the second race kicks off the early pick four, and it's a very playable pick four even though I don't have any singles in the sequence. In the second race, I'm interested in Stolen Identity off the meaningful class drop and Sir Pyy. (Stolen Identity may not start, as he's part of an entry with Nogoodbuddy with Edgar Prado named on both, meaning only one will start.) Sir Pyy was an improved third last time out and is trained by Eddie Plesa, whose horses always merit respect early in a Saratoga meet. I'm inclined to go against Tip City here despite his huge class drop. He failed off a similar class drop at 6-5 two starts back, and is dropping even below the price for which he was claimed from that race, which is a red flag for me.

The three for me in the third race are the Bobby Frankel-trained entry of Sir Halory and Aristocrat (a full brother to Ghostzapper who has been working well and gets blinkers on), the improving and logical Jonathan Quick, and War Marshall, who improved last time out despite blowing a big stretch lead. In the fourth, I like Magic Alphabet, who ran well winning a starter allowance last time out and is looking for his third straight win, and I will also use June the Tiger, who is 2 for 2 off the Linda Rice claim, and who has the back class to stand the jump in claiming level.

The fifth race, that opening-day 2-year-old maiden race that so often is the starting point for serious runners, is a real wild card. It's good this race is the first leg of the pick six, because bettors will be able to look at the tote board before jumping into that pool. But as the last leg of the pick four, it requires a lot of spreading. Expensive firsters like Cat Criminal, Overland Trail, and Velvet Cat will be on the ticket, along with Winning Minister, Wrigley, and Pimm's O'Clock.

The seventh race begins the second pick four. Whale, who has won his two races this year in a common gallop, and Sir Greeley, who ran big when he was narrowly beaten in his only turf start, are the two I'm using. I'm going three deep in the eighth because I have a single in the ninth, the Adirondack Stakes, the traditional opening-day feature. The three in the eighth are Spooky Mulder, who just won off the Scott Lake re-claim and who is 2 for 2 over the track; Purge, whose best race was a win over the track in last year's Jim Dandy; and Thunder Touch, who can pick up the pieces late if this race falls apart. Adieu is my single in the Adirondack. She had to work hard to win the Astoria last time out, but that was off a better than two-month layoff. If they couldn't beat her then, I don't think they can on Wednesday.

Finally, the late pick four and pick six ends with a bottom-level claimer on the turf. Capo is perfectly logical with solid form and a meaningful class drop, and Sliding Home will be on my ticket, as he drops, adds blinkers, and loves Saratoga turf. I'll also use He Flies, who had trouble last time out when I needed him like oxygen, and I'm afraid you have to include Kathir, who is dropping so far in class he's almost dropping out of the game.

Of course, all of this is predicated on the weather, which is always an issue at Saratoga. As of Monday, there was a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms Tuesday night and Wednesday. Thunderstorms are yet another Saratoga tradition, but one I bet even the jump wouldn't want to follow.