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Racing fans set for summer 'Spa treatments

Welcome back to the 'Spa.

Yes, it's time again for the charming town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to turn into the thoroughbred racing capital of the world, when the best horses, the best trainers, and the best jockeys spend almost six weeks competing in what many consider the top race meet in the world.

The 139th summer season at grand ol' Saratoga Race Course opens tomorrow, with the traditional Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies kicking off a run of 33 graded stakes worth nearly $9 million. The showcase event, as usual, is the $1 million Travers Aug. 25, a race expected to feature Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and Preakness winner Curlin.

"It's the toughest place of the year to win races," says Kiaran McLaughlin, who trained 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor and will have a strong presence at Saratoga. "Everybody is geared up for it -- it's quality racing and everybody is watching around the world. It's a great place to do well, but it's tough to do well."

Todd Pletcher has done extremely well, and is back with perhaps his strongest stable yet as the three-time Eclipse Award winner shoots for his sixth consecutive Saratoga training title. With more than 200 horses, including Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches, Pletcher is likely to be spending a lot of time in the winner's circle.

"Saratoga works well for us because of the quality of racing and all the 2-year-old races," says Pletcher, who has dozens of young colts and fillies ready to begin their careers. "This is a time when you can gear up horses for stakes races and the baby races."

Rags to Riches hasn't run since beating the boys in the Belmont June 9, and is scheduled to make her next start against fillies in the Alabama Aug. 18. The much anticipated debut of Pletcher-trained The Green Monkey -- purchased as a 2-year-old last year for a record $16 million -- could come sometime after Aug. 13.

"I'm sure there will be more stories written about him running the first time out than any other maiden I've been around," says Pletcher. "We'll try to put him in the best position to run well his first time out."

There's much more to Saratoga than nine races per day, six days a week (no racing Tuesdays). Think parties and cookoffs, fund-raisers, and awards dinners, Hall of Fame inductions and horse sales, polo matches and people-watching. Start early -- try Breakfast with the Brits at the track -- and end late at too many bars and clubs to mention.

A lineup of notable events include:

For those who love giveaway days, the first of six is Thursday. The prize is an Angel Cordero Jr. bobblehead doll. The retired Hall of Famer jockey is an exercise rider for Pletcher.

On Aug. 6, trainer John Veitch and jockey Jose Santos headline a group to be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame, located across the street from the track.

Funny Cide Day is Aug. 10. New York's "gutsy gelding," who won the 2003 Derby and Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont, was retired earlier this month.

Pletcher says Saratoga is a mixed blessing for him.

"I look forward to it," he said, "and I look forward to it being over as well."