The Big A Main Track Spring Meet -- Overlooked And Underrated

The Big A Main Track Spring Meet -- Overlooked And Underrated
By Noel Michaels

Noel is chief handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier OTB wagering facility, and director of Personnel for Nassau OTB. He was a long time racetrack correspondent and online Editor for the Daily Racing Form. He's also the best-selling author of many best-selling handicapping books, including , The Players Angle Almanac, Winning Angles A to Z,The Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press) and Noel's latest: Handicapping The Big Winter Meets.

The Aqueduct main track spring meet, which opens Wednesday, March 31 for a 19-day meet leading up to the opening of Belmont at the end of April, is always one of the most overlooked -- and underrated -- race meets on in the country. Aqueducts spring meet is always a highly anticipated event following the long cold winter in New York racing on the inner dirt track. This week, however, is when the New York racing season really begins. The Big A main track meet gets rolling on the very first weekend of action with the Wood Memorial Saturday card, and with the anticipated return of turf racing as warmer weather and all the other signs of spring return to the northeast.

Aqueduct will offer a $500,000 Guaranteed All-Graded Stakes Pick 4 on Wood Memorial Day, Saturday, April 3 at Aqueduct Racetrack. The first post for the 11-race Wood Day card is 1:00, and the all-stakes late pick four will begin in Race 7 with the Grade 3, $200,000 Bay Shore at approximately 4:08. Aqueducts return to relevance on Saturday will also host three other stakes including Race 8, the Grade 3, $200,000 Excelsior, Race 9, the featured Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial, and Race 10, the Grade 1, $250,000 Carter Handicap.

The 2010 Wood Memorial is expected to attract a small but talented field of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, including last months impressive Gotham winner Awesome Act in addition to the Fountain of Youth winner and runner-up Eskendereya and Jackson Bend. Super Saver, who exits a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby will also be in the field and is expected to improve in what will be his second race off a layoff.

Whereas the fall meet at Aqueduct is in many ways essentially just an extension of the Belmont meet lasting until Thanksgiving weekend, the spring meet on Aqueducts main track represents 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. Second, as mentioned above, turf racing returns to the New York condition book along with the warmer spring weather. And third, a wider array of races is available on the main track than on the inner track, which cannot accommodate sprints any longer than six furlongs.

Perhaps the biggest change with the move to the main track at Aqueduct is the different track configuration that hastens the return from 6 1/2 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 1/2 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 horses career record boxes in the past performances for Aqueduct main track horses for the course. These horses can turn their fortunes around immediately with the switch away from the inner track. Also, 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 tracks very different footing.

Aqueduct Main Track Trends
In terms of running style and post position favoritism, keep in mind that Aqueducts 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 1) has a bad reputation in the main tracks one-turn miles, but the statistics fail to back up that belief. 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.

At the most recent Aqueduct main track meet, in sprint races under one mile, the two inside posts 1 and 2 had great success with an average win rate approaching 21%. Outside posts, which you really wouldnt think would be at a disadvantage in one-turn sprints, including the seven furlong sprints, interestingly were dead in last falls Aqueduct main track meet, with posts 10-14 only a combining for about a 7% winning percentage in Aqueduct sprints. Keep a close eye on the opening week of the Aqueduct main track spring meet to try and gauge if these were just short-term trends from last fall, or perhaps more of a long-term trend that you can use in your handicapping.

Another strange trend we noticed in the most recent Aqueduct main track meet last fall was in main track routes, where inside posts 1-3 underperformed with an average win rate of about 10%. Last fall, it was instead the middle and outside posts where horses performed the best in route races, with an average win rate of 17% for middle posts 4-7, and average win rate of 24% for posts outside and including Post 8.

Aqueduct Turf Races
Aside from the return of high-caliber stakes racing in the spring on Aqueducts 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 or at least recent turf form to show for themselves over the winter. These horses seem to have an edge on the turf horses whove wintered in New York. The exception to look for in this regard, however, are turf horses who have purposefully been prepped on the dirt in anticipation of the spring opening of Aqueducts 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 'legged up' with a dirt race in advance of their returns to the grass. 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 back to the 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 years Aqueduct fall meet with only about 10% of all turf winners going wire-to-wire. In fact, not only werent front runners good bets on the Aqueduct grass, even the pace pressers didnt 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.

The other surprise last fall in Aqueduct turf races was the near complete failure of the rail Post #1, which lost 31 times in a row before recording a victory. Horses from other inside posts generally did well, but the horse breaking from the rail itself was nearly non-existent in the Big A winners circle last fall. On the not-surprising side of the ledger, the far outside posts did not do well, as expected. 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.

Jocks and Trainers
Todd Pletcher and Ramon Dominguez are expected to be out in front of the trainer and jockey standings based both on their recent results and on their dominating performances in the most recent Aqueduct main track meet last fall. Dominguez will see heaps of increased competition from the jockeys returning from Florida, but he is still expected to lead the way in the jocks room. Others to watch out for include Javier Casellano, who not only enjoyed a tremendous 50-win Gulfstream meet, but also rode exceptionally well when last seen at the Big A last fall. John Velazquez is also back in New York after riding well at Gulfstream this winter, and other top Gulfstream riders such as Edgar Prado, Eibar Coa, Rajiv Maragh, Alan Garcia, etc. wont be far behind -- no doubt eating into the success rates of winter inner track riders such as David Cohen, Rosie Napravnik, Channing Hill, and Jorge Chavez.

Todd Pletcher has been on fire ever since last falls Aqueduct main track meet, and hell continue to lead the way here day-to-day with all kinds of horses in addition to his national dominance of the 3-year-old Kentucky Derby prep picture.

Other trainers to look for, particularly at this short Big A meet include Chad Brown, Mike Hushion, and Tony Dutrow. Chad Brown, the former assistant to the late Bobby Frankel, did great here last fall and is once agin geared up, Tony Dutrow should excel with his favorites, and Mike Hushion is often a high percentage threat on this racing surface. Sleepers in the training ranks include (Smilin) Bill Badgett, and Frank Alexander.

If you blink, youll 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!

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