Aqueduct's Inner Track

Noel Michaels is director of player development for New York (Nassau) OTB, and the handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier simulcast center in the Northeast. Is also the author of the best-selling Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press), Winning Angles A to Z, Saratoga Seminar, Players' Angle Almanac and others.

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By Noel Michaels

The winter racing season in New York officially begins with the opening of the Aqueduct inner track on Wednesday, December 1. Even though winter racing is the most low-profile time of the year on the New York racing calendar, there is still much for horseplayers to anticipate during the long cold winter months in the Big Apple. Stakes racing might not be a big part of the New York racing scene at this time of the year, but that doesn't mean there is not a lot going on for bettors and handicappers who consider Aqueduct's inner track meet to be the meat-and-potatoes money-making and bet-cashing meet for avid horseplayers and hardcore handicappers.

Bill Nader, the former head of the NYRA, said 'The inner track is very New York -- part of what defines New York horseplayers. Some people love to bet the inner track while others can't stand it, but even if you don't like it, you'd at least better get used to it because it'll be here all the way until the end of March when the spring warmth starts to return and the days start to get longer again on the East coast.

Even if you are the type of winter horseplayer who prefers to wait for the 'big winter meets' to open at the end of December and the beginning of January, there is no denying that the Aqueduct inner track is where it's at for horseplayers at this time of year during the otherwise sparse month of December in the world of horseracing.

Winter racing in New York is essentially a scaled-down but yet very bettable version of NYRA's five-day-a-week racing schedule without all the bells and whistles of graded stakes and turf racing. The race cards will now become dirt-only affairs, of course, as turf racing migrates south and west for the winter, so what we're left with are the Aqueduct inner track's dirt sprints, which are all at one mile, and two-turn route racing mostly conducted at 1 mile and 70 yards, and 1 1/16-miles with some occasional one-mile and 1 1/8-mile races sprinkled in to make things a little more interesting.

Why are most of the two-turn route races on the Aqueduct inner track run at 1 mile and 70 yards and 1 1/16 miles instead of at a flat mile, you ask? The answer is because the turns on the inner track are tight, and the route races here all feature a relatively short run to the first turn. This is especially true at the distance of one mile, which features a very short run up into the first turn, and therefore has the biggest disadvantage for horses drawn in outside posts.

Be aware that the rail and the inside three posts have traditionally won for a high percentage on the inner track, so you should always have that in mind when considering runners from outside gates unless the current meet statistics end up being directly in conflict with historical trends.

As an interesting note, the stats from the last couple of years on the inner track show that the track played more fairly in terms of post positions in 2009-10 than perhaps ever before. Horses the last two years could win from any post and at any distance -- a big departure from previous seasons when the win percentages, especially in routes, were extremely heavily skewed toward the three or four inside posts. We'll have to watch carefully and examine if the old inside bias returns this season, or if the track can play fairly overall as it did for most of the last couple of years.

Just when things begin moving along fast and furious at the Aqueduct inner track meet, the track will take a 9-day holiday break starting on December 20.

Aqueduct's remaining 2010 racing schedule is, as follows:

Upcoming Aqueduct Racing Schedule
Dec. 1 -- Opening Day, inner track season
Dec. 1-19 -- Open daily, Wednesday through Sunday, first post 12:30 Eastern
Dec. 20-28 -- Closed for holiday break, no racing
Dec. 29 -- Aqueduct re-opens, Wednesday through Sunday schedule resumes

The other main thing to understand and try to capitalize on when handicapping the inner track meet is that the inner track is much more speed friendly than Aqueduct's main track, which encompasses nearly all of the most recent races in local horse's past performances. If you are going to be able enjoy any kind of success betting the inner track, you must learn to acknowledge the increased success of speed -- and particularly inside speed -- as opposed to the racing on Aqueduct's main track. Do yourself a favor and upgrade early speed horses while slightly downgrading the closers, especially if there doesn't figure to be a contentious pace.

Early speed is king on the Aqueduct inner track, and speed and the rail is a deadly combination. Upgrade early speed horses and make good use of the lone speed angle, while at the same time downgrading deep closers in all but the most contentious pace scenarios. The three- and four-wide trips that win other times of the year in New York don't win nearly as often once NYRA racing shifts to the Aqueduct inner track. In routes, the short run to the first turn makes ground-saving trips invaluable and puts the pressure on the riders of the outermost horses in big fields to somehow work out ground-saving trips. Outside posts can indeed win, but the horses from those gates generally need good 'inside-out' trips and rides, meaning that they should save ground early before swinging out leaving the turn and rallying into the stretch from not too far behind.

One way to make money on Aqueduct's inner track, especially early in the meet, is to capitalize on the many differences between main track racing and inner track racing at Aqueduct. Many of the races that had been run around one turn at Belmont and on Aqueduct's main track will now be run around two turns, so scan down horses' pp's and find the ones that should benefit from the extra turn. Horses with two-turn route wins are preferred over one-turn mile winners and horses who've benefited from the one-turn route racing at Belmont.

Another aspect of looking for two-turn horses is the importance of finding horses for the course, who thrive specifically on Aqueduct's inner track. Certain horses love Aqueduct's inner-track surface while others can't stand it, and many veteran horses have compiled great long-term records over the inner oval which makes them very attractive bets, sometimes at long odds if those horses have poor recent form earned on other race surfaces. Sometimes horses will ship out of town to Philadelphia Park, Finger Lakes, New Jersey, and the Mid-Atlantic region for the rest of the year, but their connections will ship them back to Aqueduct for the inner-track meet if they've proven to have an affinity for the inner track surface in the past. These horses can often be terrific bets, especially when they are trained by top conditioners such as Bruce Levine and Anthony Dutrow and other top mid-Atlantic trainers.

With the transition from main track racing to inner-track racing at Aqueduct, a lot of variety is lost with the wintertime demise of the middle sprint distances of 6 1/2 furlongs and 7 furlongs. The inner track configuration prohibits these distances from being run this time of year. However, aside from the monotony that handicappers must face by looking only at sprint races all being run at the same distance of 6 furlongs over-and-over, this not-so-subtle difference is nevertheless a major factor for handicappers to use to their best advantage.

Many of the sprint horses whose connections stick around New York for the winter have horses that prefer 6 1/2 and/or 7 furlongs. However, those horses must be shoe-horned into 6 furlong races whether they like it or not (or else stretched out around two turns, which is even less preferable). The fact that a lot of horses will spend the whole winter at Aqueduct racing at a distance that is not their favorite is an important handicapping factor that should not be overlooked. Therefore, scan down horses' past performances and try to find the ones that would rather be entered at better 6 1/2 of 7 furlong races, but have had to be either shortened up to 6 furlongs or stretched out to two-turn races instead. When you find these horses, bet against them whenever possible.

Also remember that this six-furlong factor is yet another thing that results in speed horses performing very well on the Aqueduct inner track. Many late-running sprinters that could rally to win a 6 1/2- or 7-furlong race will now be having their rallies fall short because they are forced to sprint 6 furlongs at a distance that just isn't long enough to aid their late-running chances.

When Aqueduct racing resumes on Dec. 29, most of the big name jockeys will be departed for Gulfstream, and the winter riders will take over for the rest of the winter.

The Aqueduct inner track riding colony once again this winter will be led by New York win king Ramon Dominguez, who is likely to dominate again this year (for his fourth straight winter title) after winning double the amount of races as the next closest jockey here last winter, and more recently having run away with the Aqueduct main track meet riding title with 25 wins (the second-place jockey, Jose Lezcano, had 16 victories).

Look for Dominguez to win nearly 30% of his mounts at the inner track meet, but also look for his horses to routinely be heavily-favored and his winners to be at low mutuel prices. This brings up the annual betting quandary for Dominguez on the Aqueduct inner track: You can't be on him and you can't bet against him.

When you do decide to go outside the box looking for a winning inner track jockey, some of the best competition will come from David Cohen, who finished second to Dominguez in the Aqueduct inner track standings last winter and was third at the recently concluded Aqueduct main track meet with 15 wins. Cohen will ride first call locally for Todd Pletcher's New York string, as well as a host of other good local trainers. Another jockey who will be back this season on the inner track will be C. C. Lopez, who has ridden well here the last two winters and finished fourth in wins at this meet in 2009-10. Lopez is known as an aggressive early speed rider, and that riding style works strongly to his advantage at this speed-friendly meet.

A couple of jockeys who have spent recent winters in Florida will also be calling Aqueduct home this winter with Cornelio Velasquez and Eddie Castro slated to ride the inner track meet this season. Hopefully both have been able to find their long-johns hiding at the bottom of their drawers or at the back of their closets.

Some new faces at the Aqueduct inner track meet who should make their presence felt to some extent in the jockey standings will be led by an interesting trio of riders. Junior Alvarado won seven races at the Big A main track meet and looked good doing it -- often on horses who were not amongst the favorites. Woodbine's leading rider this year, Eurico Da Silva, will show off his talents in New York this winter. The ranks of the apprentice jockeys wintering at Aqueduct will be topped by bug boy Brian Pedrosa.

There will be a Florida exodus of trainers just like there is for jockeys following the holidays, and many of the top training names like Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, Kiaran McLaughlin, Barclay Tagg and many others will all be taking the majority of their better stock with them down south for the winter. The top training names taking their places atop the Aqueduct inner track standings will include familiar New York names such as Gary Contessa, Richard Dutrow, Bruce Levine, Bruce Brown, and of course, Rudy Rodriguez.

The leading trainer at the recently concluded Big A main track meet was Chad Brown, who won a great deal of his races on the grass. Therefore, as Brown and most of his best horses head to Florida, we will see a change now atop the trainers standings in favor of the aforementioned conditioners led by Gary Contessa, who loads up his barn annually for horses well-suited to winning at the inner track meet.

Contessa is expected to be challenged by Bruce Levine, who will probably have the second-most starters at the meet behind Contessa and will be exceptionally dangerous with horses adding first-time Lasix (the 'Bruce Juice'), by Richard Dutrow and Rudy Rodriguez, who will win at very high percentages, particularly off recent claims, by Todd Pletcher, whose first-string horses will be down in Florida but can still win a ton of races here with his winter second-stringers, by Kiaran McLaughlin (see Pletcher comment), and by David Jacobson, who is likely to compile a lot of winners with his typical claim-and-drop class moves.

Other trainers will be at Aqueduct with highly bettable winter strings will include James Jerkens, Linda Rice, Rick Violette, and Tony Dutrow.

Good luck during the Aqueduct inner track meet, and enjoy the next four months. Remember, just because many of the best horses and horsemen will be spending their winters out of town, that doesn't mean there isn't still bets to be cashed in New York at this time of year. By following some of the trends, angles, and advice in this article, you can make your winter a winning one on the Aqueduct inner track.


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