Aqueduct Spring Preview
AQUEDUCT MAIN TRACK SPRING PREVIEW
By Noel Michaels
The Aqueduct main track spring meet -- which opens Wednesday, March 30 for 18 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 I'm on the scene and you can click here to get my best bet selections on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Big A main track meet brings instant relief for the winter racing inner track blues with a meet that includes sprints at distances other than 6 furlongs, and eventually even the much-anticipated return of turf racing to New York. Plus, if that isn't a sure enough sign of spring, along with the return of baseball season, we won't need to wait long for the next sure sign of spring for horseplayers with the runnings of the G1-Wood Memorial and the G1-Carter Handicap scheduled right around the corner on Saturday, April 9.
The 2010 Wood Memorial is expected to attract a small but select field of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, led by Kentucky Derby winter book favorite Uncle Mo. Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, Uncle Mo is undefeated in four starts to date including last season's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and his first 3-year-old win last time out in a small stakes race at Gulfstream Park.
Whereas Aqueduct's Fall Meet is in many ways essentially just an extension of the Belmont Fall Meet, the spring meet on Aqueduct's main track 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 stop 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 some relief from the five- and six-horse fields Aqueduct has been plagued with on the inner track in recent months. 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 horse's 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 track's very different footing. On opening day for example, in the featured eighth race, Ruffino -- a classic Aqueduct main track horse for the course -- exits a sixth-place finish on the inner track in his last start but should instantly turn things around on the main track, where his career record is 5 wins in 6 races.
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 1) has a bad reputation in the main track's 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.
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 or at least recent turf form to show for themselves over the winter. These horses seem to have an edge on 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 race 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 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 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.
No 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 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' conditions.
Aqueduct is the wintertime home of the nation's top jockey and current Eclipse Award holder Ramon Dominguez. Betting the Big A is an exercise of knowing when to bet on the dominating rider who rules the roost -- and the tote board -- at Aqueduct, and when to seek value elsewhere by betting against him. Behind Dominguez, the clear second fiddle has been David Cohen, who, it should be noted, is riding extremely hot lately and has been a good as anybody anywhere since mid-February.
Behind the top two, the top wintertime New York jockeys this year have been the hot-and-cold Cornelio Velazquez, the up-and-coming Junior Alvarado. Velazquez is most dangerous when he is riding logically-spotted horses for trainers Rudy Rodriguez, Chris Englehart, and Linda Rice, while Alvarado could catch-on at other times of the year in New York after making a local name for himself this winter.
Aside from the riders named above, the New York jockey colony will once again become the domain of the top jockeys from Gulfstream and/or Keeneland over the next few weeks with the expected returns of John Velazquez, Alan Garcia, Javier Castellano, Jose Lezcano, and Rajiv Maragh.
Plenty of Aqueduct trainers have been having solid and successful seasons this winter, and many have won at high percentages and posted strong ROIs, but there is still nobody around here who has the firepower in his or her stable to compete with leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who tops the trainers standings at both Aqueduct and Gulfstream, where he has won at percentages of 30% and 27%, respectively.
Beyond Pletcher, the story at Aqueduct will be about trainers like Rudy Rodriguez, Chris Englehart, and Linda Rice, whose runners all see heavy action pretty much whenever they are entered, and others whose big guns will be returning from Florida such as Kiaran McLaughlin (22 wins at Aqueduct and 9 wins at Gulfstream this winter), Chad Brown (15 wins, 27% at Gulfstream), and Richard Dutrow (25 wins at Aqueduct and 9 wins at Gulfstream this winter). Rick Violette had a hot winter at Aqueduct (30% wins), as has the red-hot Bruce Brown (27 wins for 24% at Aqueduct), and Graham Motion has recently heated up in Florida and elsewhere.
Aqueduct Inner Track Trends
When you are handicapping the Aqueduct main track, you inevitably are going to run into a whole lotta Aqueduct inner track past performances. The Aqueduct inner track is known often for its track biases and this year has been no exception. Here is my list of Aqueduct inner track biases to take note of from this past season since February:
Aqueduct Inner Track Biases
Mar. 10 -- Front-end bias, 8-of-9 winners on or close
Mar. 6 -- Helped to be on or close to the pace
Feb. 27 -- Outside preferred; helped to be close to the pace
Feb. 26 -- Helped to be on or close to the pace
Feb. 24 -- Speed bias, all winners on or close
Feb. 19 -- Inside speed bias (cancel after 3 races)
Feb. 18 -- Rail was best part of track
Feb. 17 -- No wire-to-wire winners
Feb. 16 -- Front-end bias, had to be on or close to pace
Feb. 10 -- All winners on or close
Feb. 9 -- Strong inside speed bias
Feb. 6 -- Outside good, slow rail
Feb. 5 -- Good rail (sealed)
As far as post positions are concerned, the inside posts were beneficial on the inner track for the most part, but still not as dominant as in many years past, especially in two-turn route races and miles where the three inside posts often dominated. Interestingly, the inside posts were slightly more beneficial in sprints than in routes this season on the inner track. Outside posts were not a strong disadvantage.
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!