DON?T BLINK, YOU?LL MISS AQUEDUCT?S UNDERRATED SPRING MEET

DON’T BLINK, YOU’LL MISS AQUEDUCT’S UNDERRATED SPRING MEET

By Staff

The Aqueduct main track spring meet – which opens on Wednesday, March 27 for nineteen racing days leading up to the opening of Belmont at the end of April – is always one of the most overlooked and underrated race meets of the year.  Aqueduct’s spring meet is always highly anticipated following the long cold winter in New York on the inner dirt track, and with only 19 days on the main track, if you blink, you’ll miss a short but sweet month that features the return of turf racing and many big-name jockeys, trainers, and horses to New York.

This season’s Big A spring main track meet will have a distinctly different flavor than in years past. The biggest change to get used to this season is in the jock’s room, where perennial leading rider Ramon Dominguez will be absent for the entire meet as he continues his recovery from a fractured skull suffered in a spill on the inner track on January 18.  Since then, the jockey standings in New York have more or less been dominated by brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz, who finished 1-2 in the inner track jockey race with 79 and 76 wins respectively. The next winningest rider was Cornelio Velasquez with 66 victories on the inner track.  Those riders and others including Junior Alvarado (50 wins) and apprentice Keiber Coa (28 wins) will be joined in the Aqueduct main track jockey colony after the April 5 closing of the Gulfstream meet by John Velazquez, Jose Lezcano, Javier Castellano, and Edgar Prado, who will make Aqueduct their April base while all also riding extensively in Kentucky.

The other departure from normal at the upcoming Big A main track meet will be in terms of the trainer standings, where the trainers you would expect to be winning the most races – Richard Dutrow and Rudy Rodriguez – are both suspended. Dutrow is out indefinitely and perhaps permanently, while Rodriguez will finish up a month suspension in April while this bother and assistant, Gustavo Rodriguez, handles his racing stable.  With those top conditioners sidelined, the training title will likely be up for grabs this season amongst local claiming heroes like David Jacobson (34 wins on the inner track), Bruce Levine (27 wins), trainers who split their winter stock between NY and Florida like Linda Rice, Jamie Ness, and Kiaran McLaughlin, and the big stables returning from Florida who will also be concentrating on Keeneland like Bill Mott, Shug McGaughey, Christophe Clement, and especially Todd Pletcher.

On the racetrack, the Big A main track meet brings instant relief for the winter racing blues with a meet that includes sprints at distances other than 6 furlongs, and eventually even the much-anticipated return of turf racing in New York, which is perhaps delayed a week or so this year due to an unseasonably cold spring in New York.

However, if the temperatures aren’t a sure enough sign of spring, then perhaps the upcoming runnings of the year’s first Grade 1 races in New York – the Wood Memorial and the Carter Handicap – along with the return of baseball season, will finally be able to break up the spring malaise for local sports and horseracing fans.

The 2013 Wood Memorial Day is scheduled for Saturday, April 6, and it will feature five graded stakes races along with the G1-Carter Handicap, the G2-Gazelle and the G2-Ruffian Handicap, and the G3-Bay Shore. The Wood Memorial, New York’s Kentucky Derby prep race, is expected to attract a great field of Derby hopefuls led by current future book favorite Verrazano, the winner of the Tampa Bay Derby trained by Todd Pletcher. He is expected to be challenged by Gotham winner and runner-up Vyjack and West Hills Giant, 2012 Remsen second-place finisher Normandy Invasion, Bill Mott’s Private Terms Stakes winner Mr. Palmer, and possibly a Bob Baffert west coast shipper, likely to be either buzz-worthy maiden winner Tiz the Truth, and/or Power Broker, who would be making his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

EMBRACE THE RETURN OF 6 1/2F, 7F, AND ONE-TURN MILES

Whereas the Aqueduct main track’s Fall Meet is in many ways essentially just an extension of the Belmont Fall Meet, the Aqueduct Spring Meet represents the start of a major changeover for New York racing in many ways. First off, higher-profile horses and barns begin to return to New York from Florida during this time or year, either directly or with a stopover in Kentucky in-between. Second, as mentioned above, turf racing returns to the New York condition book along with the warmer spring weather. This should help fill more races and provide relief from the steady diet of five-, six-, and seven-horse fields that Aqueduct was plagued with on the inner track. And third, a wider array of races are available on the main track, namely 6 ½-furlong and 7-furlong races which cannot be accommodated on the inner track.

Perhaps the biggest change with the move to the main track at Aqueduct is the different track configuration that hastens the return from 6 ½ furlong and 7 furlong sprints, as well as one-turn miles, to the New York racing scene. This change cannot be underestimated, especially for the longer sprint specializing horses that have been shoehorned into shorter sprints all winter long by necessity. These 6 ½ furlong and 7 furlong specialists (and sometimes even 7 1/2 furlong specialists) who have been losing all winter long on the inner track can now stretch back out to their preferred distances, and thereby often show dramatic and immediate turnarounds in their form. The same is true for one-turn mile lovers who were forced to go two turns all winter long in mile races and longer. Different horses generally excel in one-turn miles than in two-turn miles, and one-turn miles also give a better chance for stretchout sprinters to be able to handle the added distance.

Beyond just the track layout, also be on the lookout in horse’s career record boxes in the past performances for Aqueduct main track horses for the course. These horses are usually different than the inner track horses for the course and often can turn their fortunes around immediately with the switch away from the inner track – turning the tables on the same horses who had beaten them all winter.  Conversely, stay on the lookout for inner track horses for courses who will likely take a downturn as soon as they step foot on the main track’s very different footing.

AQUEDUCT MAIN TRACK TRENDS

In terms of running style and post position favoritism, keep in mind that Aqueduct’s main track is among the fairest there is. Very little advantage can be gleaned by any one post position or running style versus any other. Interestingly, too, is the fact that the rail post has a bad reputation in the main track’s one-turn miles, but the statistics fail to back that up. All posts, including the rail, appear to be fair in one-turn miles, and if anything, based strictly on the numbers from recent main track meets under the current track superintendent, the rail seems to be better in mile races (one turn) than it is in two-turn routes. This is exactly the opposite from what one might expect. At other distances, post positions and running style preferences also are virtual non factors here. If anything, perhaps sprints can occasionally favor inside posts, but this is not a big enough bias to base your bets on.

Keep a close eye on how the track plays during the opening week of the Aqueduct main track spring meet and be flexible enough to go with the flow with your wagering.  An opening week bias might be just a short-term trend, but even a short-term trend may turn into a meet-long bias at a meet like this which lasts only three weeks.

AQUEDUCT TURF RACES

Aside from the return of high-caliber stakes racing in the spring on Aqueduct’s main track, the other big occurrence this time of year is the return of turf racing.

Many of the best bets on turf during the spring meet are horses that are coming in from out of town with some current form or at least recent turf form to show for themselves over the winter. These horses seem to have an edge over the turf horses who’ve wintered in New York. The exception to look for in this regard, however, are turf horses who have purposefully been given a prep on the dirt in anticipation of the spring opening of Aqueduct’s turf course. These horses are interesting because they almost always will have returned from a layoff with a very poor-looking dirt race, and therefore can be easy to overlook. Nevertheless, these returning turf horses are often strictly being prepped and “given a race” on the dirt by their trainers, who sneakily are looking ahead with their eyes on a return to the grass at this short meet. The best advice for these horses is to toss out their dirt preps and consider them “prepped and ready” for a much better effort when switched to the Aqueduct lawn.

As far as running styles are concerned on the Aqueduct grass course, many handicappers assume speed carries well on the Aqueduct turf because of its tight turns. Take note, however, that that was not the case at last year’s Aqueduct fall meet with only about 15% of all turf winners going wire-to-wire. In fact, not only weren’t front runners good bets on the Aqueduct grass – but even the pace pressers didn’t do well last fall.  In total, about two-thirds of all grass winners came from fifth-place or further back during the early stages of the running of the race. Therefore, bet the closers on the Aqueduct lawn until you see proof that this trend is reversing.

Not surprisingly, the far outside posts generally do not do well on the Aqueduct lawn, as you would expect. Even when the closers tend to win more than their share, posts 8 and outward struggle on the Aqueduct turf.  This seems to suggest the importance of saving ground early in Aqueduct turf races, especially around the first turn.

Finally, beware the far inside rail Post #1 on the Aqueduct grass, which has been dead on-and-off for parts of the last two years. Horses from other inside posts generally do well, but the rail post itself is hit-or-miss.  Perhaps it is something that has to do with wet or dry weather.  In wet weather, the turf rail might be the last place to fully dry out, making it a disadvantage when the track is being upgraded from something other than “firm” condition.

AQUEDUCT TRENDS FROM THIS WINTER’S INNER TRACK MEET

When you are handicapping the Aqueduct main track, you inevitably are going to run into a whole lot of Aqueduct inner track past performances. The Aqueduct inner track is often known for its track biases, but all things considered, this season on the inner track wasn’t the most bias-filled in recent memory. There were, however, a good amount of track bias days that were worth noting on the Aqueduct inner track, and knowing what those biases were could and should help you with your handicapping as the affected horses come back for their upcoming starts on the Aqueduct main track. Here is my list of Aqueduct inner track biases for the 2012-2013 inner track season:

Aqueduct Inner Track Biases

Mar. 21 – Inside speed bias

Mar. 16 – Helped to be on or close to the pace

Mar. 9 – Outside advantage

Feb. 24 – Helped to be on or close on muddy-to-good track

Feb. 22 – Speed good, 7 of 9 winners raced 1-2 early

Feb. 21 – Front-end bias, had to be on or close; outside good

Feb. 15 – Speed good; helped to be on or close to the pace

Feb. 10 – Speed favoring muddy-to-good wet track

Feb. 2 – Outside bias and rally wide trips preferred

Feb. 1 – Slow rail path; rally wide trips preferred

Jan. 30 – Good rail; helped to be on or close when difficult to come from far back

Jan. 27 – Speed good, had to be on or close to the pace

Jan. 19 – Strong speed bias

Jan. 9 – Outside preferred

Jan. 6 – Outside advantage

Jan. 5 – Helped to be on or close

Jan. 1 – Helped to be on or close

Dec. 31 – Helped to be on or close

Dec. 30 – Helped to be on or close on drying out track

Dec. 26 – Inside speed bias

Dec. 13 – Good rail

Dec. 9 – Outside bias on a sloppy track

Dec. 8 – Outside bias on a sloppy track

Dec. 7 – Helped to be on or close to the pace

Dec. 6 – Strong front-end bias; good rail

Dec. 5 – Had to be on or close to the pace

The two main biases to be aware of, for the purposes of handicapping the upcoming meet, are the inside speed bias on March 21, and the mid-February stretch on most days from Feb. 15 to Feb. 24, where the track favored speed horses and horses on or close to the pace while hindering closing horses trying to rally from far back. Also, the biggest bias day of the meet was the strong speed bias on January 19, however, most of the horses who ran that day have already come back to run at least once since then.

When it comes to post positions, the 2012-2013 winter inner track meet showed little consistent bias or favoritism for any post or group of posts in either sprint races or route races. Surprisingly, inner track route races showed no real post position bias. Many handicappers consider the inside posts to be gospel in Aqueduct inner track route races, but this season there was little advantage for the inside posts versus the middle or even outside parts of the starting gate, with horses breaking from post positions 1-8 all enjoying roughly the same winning percentages. The lone possible exception would have been the rail post itself, post 1, which won only 12% of the time in routes for a lower win percentage than any other post position from 2-8.

If you blink, you’ll miss one of the great and underrated race meets of the year in thoroughbred racing – the Big A main track spring meet.  Enjoy the meet, and don’t miss it!  Good luck and good racing at Aqueduct!

 

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