05/01/2006 12:00AM

Westchester three-peat within Gygistar's grasp

Gygistar has won the last two runnings of the Westchester Handicap.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Gygistar will go for a three-peat in the Westchester Handicap, the opening-day feature on Wednesday at Belmont Park.

The Grade 3, $100,000 stakes has been the perfect fit for the 7-year-old Gygistar over the past two years in terms of its timing and one-mile distance.

Following the pattern employed last year, trainer Mark Hennig rested Gygistar most of the winter at Payson Park in Florida, producing a fresh horse for the return to Belmont and the Westchester.

"He loves Belmont and it has worked out schedule-wise for the last couple of years," Hennig said.

Hennig used the Artax Stakes at Gulfstream Park as Gygistar's Westchester prep the last two years. He was second in the race in 2005; he rallied for third in the most recent edition on April 1.

At 7 1/2 furlongs, the Artax is a shade short of the one-mile that Gygistar craves.

He has a record of 4-0-2 in seven one-mile races, including a season-concluding third in the 2005 Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

Time is the enemy of all athletes and Hennig admits Gygistar is "another year older and another step slower, but he still loves the game."

A new star for Hennig?

While Gygistar is a stakes-proven commodity, We Can Seek could be an emerging star for the Hennig barn.

We Can Seek, a 5-year-old stallion bred in Chile, got his first U.S. victory at the Big A last Thursday. In his prior start he finished a rallying second in the Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap at Gulfstream on April 1.

The horse joined the Hennig barn last year after capturing 5 of 12 races in South America.

The adjustment took time as We Can Seek was winless in five races before the recent victory.

"He's definitely settled in," Hennig said. "He's gotten to know America better and we've gotten to know him better. He's doing very well right now."

The next step could be a big one - the Grade 1, $500,000 Pimlico Special on May 19.

"I know the owner would like to run there," Hennig said. "He's going to be in the country that weekend. We'll give that a look."

Hennig said he believes the horse, owned by Agricola P. Nevado, will not have a problem with the 1 3/16-mile distance of the Pimlico Special.

"For a lot of American horses, a mile and an eighth is their limit," Hennig said. "A mile and quarter, this horse has been looking for that kind of distance."

Harty to have 25 at Belmont

Trainer Eoin Harty will be one of the new faces at Belmont Park this year. A former Bob Baffert assistant, Harty will have 25 head stabled here for the spring-summer meet.

Harty said he will have a diverse barn featuring stakes quality animals such as Dubai Escapade, Beholden, and Changing Weather, recent 3-year-old filly maiden winners Noblewoman and Burmilla, a nice turf horse in Sun Boat, and some claiming stock as well.

"We're planning on participating as much as possible," said Harty, who is at Churchill Downs this week to run Beholden in the La Troienne.

Dubai Escapade is 3 for 3 this year, including a smashing victory in the Madison Stakes at Keeneland. Following that race, Dubai Escapade was turned out for two weeks. She was scheduled to ship to Belmont on Wednesday.

Harty said Dubai Escapade will be pointed to the Grade 2, $150,000 Vagrancy Handicap at Belmont on June 11. That race will serve as a prep for the Grade 1, $500,000 Princess Rooney Handicap at Calder on July 15.

Noblewoman, a 7 3/4-length winner on April 2, makes her first start against winners on Thursday. Burmilla, who won her maiden in January at Gulfstream, should also be running soon.

Harty said he expects to get the promising 3-year-old Barbican back in his barn within a month. A one-time Kentucky Derby candidate, Barbican had to undergo surgery to remove a small chip from a hind sesamoid.

Funny Cide may go to Schaefer

Funny Cide, who ended an eight-race losing streak by winning Sunday's $68,875 Kings Point Handicap at Aqueduct, may make his next start in the Grade 3, $100,000 William Donald Schaefer Handicap at Pimlico on Preakness Day.

Trainer Barclay Tagg said he would nominate Funny Cide to the Schaefer as well as the Grade 1, $500,000 Pimlico Special the day before the Preakness, but is leaning toward the easier of the two spots.

"I want to run him in the Schaefer, but I'll probably nominate for the Pimlico Special just in case it falls apart; you'd feel stupid for $500,000 not being in it," Tagg said. "I'm not looking for something to make him kill himself. I think it's all mental with him; physically he's fine."

Funny Cide earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure for his three-quarter-length victory over Gold and Roses. Funny Cide controlled the early pace, then battled back after being headed by Gold and Roses and Win With Beck.

Rolling the dice with Marco's Tale

Trainer Rene Araya figured it was a gamble he couldn't lose, exposing Marco's Tale for a $100,000 claiming tag in Aqueduct's optional claiming feature for 3-year-olds on April 26.

If someone took the colt, Araya would have doubled the $50,000 owner Paul Pompa Jr. plunked down to claim the horse in November at Aqueduct.

As it turned out, Araya and Pompa scored a double win. Marco's Tale easily captured the allowance race, earning a career-best Beyer Figure of 92 in the process. And they kept the horse.

"I feel fortunate both ways," Araya said. "If someone took him, we would have made a big profit on the horse. How many times can you do that in this business?"

The upside is they still have a horse who has now won 3 of his last 4 races. The lone defeat was certainly excusable as Marco's Tale ran last in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial behind Kentucky Derby contender Bob and John.

Araya is in no hurry to rush Marco's Tale back into a Grade 1 stakes.

"We're going to try to have fun with the horse in his 3-year-old campaign," Araya said. "We might pick out some smaller overnight stakes but we haven't settled on one yet."

Rewards program kicks off this meet

The New York Racing Association's rewards program kicks off with Wednesday's opening of the Belmont spring meet.

Bettors accumulate points based on how much and in which pools they wager. Bettors are credited with 1 point for every dollar wagered on a live NYRA race and a half-point per dollar wagered on a simulcast race. The wagers must be placed at a NYRA track or through NYRA's telebet system. The telebet system will have expanded hours for nighttime simulcasting.

The first day of each month starts a new point cycle and points are not carried over from one month to the next. Also, points will not be rewarded on mutuel returns of $2.10.

As the point threshold increases, the percentage of rebate depends on which pools the points are accumulated in. For someone who earns 2,000 points, the rebate is 1 percent regardless in which pools those points are earned. Someone who earns 10,000 points wagering in the win, place, and show pools, however, earns a 1.5 percent rebate while someone who earns 10,000 points in two-horse wagers, such as the daily double or exacta pools, earns a 1.75 percent rebate, and someone who earns 10,000 points in exotic wagers such as the pick four or pick six, gets a 2 percent rebate.

- additional reporting by David Grening

At a glance:

RACING SCHEDULE: 59 days; Wednesday through July 22. Dark Mondays and Tuesdays, except Monday, May 29 (Memorial Day), Monday, July 3 and Tuesday, July 4; also dark Wednesday, May 31, Wednesday, July 5 and Thursday, July 6.

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Eastern; noon on Belmont Stakes Day, June 10; 3 p.m. on Sunset Fridays beginning June 16

LOCATION: Exit 26D off Cross Island Parkway

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

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

PHONE: (516) 488-6000.

INTERNET: www.nyra.com

2006 stakes schedule

Wed. May 3Westchester Handicap (G3)3YO & Up1 Mile$100,000
Sat May 6Nassau County B.C. (G2)3YO F7 Furlongs200,000
Sun May 7Bouwerie*3YO F7 Furlongs100,000
Sat May 13Bold Ruler Handicap (G3)3YO & Up6 Furlongs100,000
Sun May 14Kingston Handicap*3YO & Up1 1/8 miles (T)100,000
Sat May 20Peter Pan (G2)3YO1 1/8 miles200,000
Sun May 21Shuvee Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M1 Mile150,000
Sat May 27Sheepshead Bay Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M1 3/8 miles (T)150,000
Sun May 28Jaipur (G3)3YO & Up6 Furlongs(T)100,000
Mon May 29Metropolitan Handicap (G1)3YO & Up1 Mile600,000
Sat June 3Sands Point (G3)3YO F1 1/8 miles (T)100,000
Sun June 4N.Y. Stallion Stakes (Cupecoy's Joy Div.)3YO F1 Mile75,000
Sun June 4N.Y. Stallion Stakes (Spectacular Bid Div.)3YO1 Mile75,000
Fri June 9Hill Prince (G3)3YO1 Mile (T)100,000
Sat June 10Belmont (G1)3YO1 1/2 miles1,000,000
Sat June 10Manhattan HANDICAP (G1)3YO & Up1 1/4 miles (T)400,000
Sat June 10True North Handicap (G2)3YO & Up6 Furlongs200,000
Sat June 10Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup (G2)3YO7 Furlongs250,000
Sat June 10Just a Game Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M1 Mile (T)300,000
Sat June 10Acorn (G1)3YO F1 Mile250,000
Sun June 11Vagrancy Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M6 1/2 Furlongs150,000
Sat June 17Ogden Phipps Handicap (G1)3YO & Up, F&M1 1/16 miles300,000
Sun June 18Mount Vernon Handicap*3YO & Up, F&M1 1/8 miles (T)100,000
Sat June 24New York B.C. Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M1 1/4 miles (T)250,000
Sun June 25Mike Lee*3YO7 Furlongs100,000
Sat July 1Suburban Handicap (G1)3YO & Up1 1/4 miles400,000
Sat July 1Mother Goose (G1)3YO F1 1/8 miles250,000
Sun July 2Poker Handicap (G3)3YO & Up1 Mile (T)100,000
Sun July 2Astoria2YO F5 1/2 Furlongs100,000
Mon July 3Genuine Risk B.C. Handicap (G2)3YO & Up, F&M6 Furlongs150,000
Tues July 4Dwyer (G2)3YO1 1/16 miles150,000
Tues July 4Tremont2YO5 1/2 Furlongs100,000
Sat July 8Prioress B.C. (G1)3YO F6 Furlongs250,000
Sun July 9Lexington (G3)3YO1 1/8 miles (T)100,000
Sat July 15Bowling Green Handicap (G2)3YO & Up1 3/8 miles (T)150,000
Sun July 16Tom Fool Handicap (G2)3YO & Up7 Furlongs50,000
Sat July 22Coaching Club American Oaks (G1)3YO F1 1/4 miles300,000
Sat July 22Evan Shipman Handicap*3YO & Up1 1/16 miles100,000

* restricted to N.Y.-breds