Don't Miss Aqueduct's Underrated Main Track Spring Meet

DON'T MISS AQUEDUCT'S UNDERRATED MAIN TRACK SPRING MEET

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs

The Aqueduct main track spring meet - which opens this year Wednesday, March 21 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.

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 in 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 7.

The 2012 Wood Memorial is expected to attract a great field of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, led by Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and Gotham winner Hansen. He is expected to be challenged by Gotham runner-up My Adonis, Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective, and possibly Bob Baffert's west coast shipper, Liason, who most recently was fourth in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.

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 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 six- and seven-horse fields Aqueduct has is plagued with on the inner track. 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 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 JOCKEYS

As expected the nation's top jockey and current Eclipse Award winner, Ramon Dominguez, was dominating once again this season on the inner track. Dominguez extended his win total and his margin of victory in the jockey's standings all meet long and eventually ended with a 20-win advantage over second-leading rider Cornelio Velasquez, 104 wins to 84. Dominguez has earned his 104 wins at a 27% win percentage with only 384 mounts - far less mounts than any of the other three top riders (Cornelio's win percentage was a much less impressive 19%).

HOWEVER, Ramon Dominguez was injured in a spill late in the card on the last day of the inner track meet, dislocated clavicle (shoulder blade). While the bone was not fractured, Dominguez is expected an undetermined amount of time and is out until further notice, even though the injury is not considered to be serious. This will undoubtedly open things up in the jock's room with multiple wins expected to filter down to other jockeys.

At this time of year in New York, handicappers anxiously await the return of the top-rung riders from Florida after the conclusion of the Gulfstream meet, which concludes on April 8. However, most of the top jockeys such as Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Jose Lezcano, Rajiv Maragh, and several others will first make pit stops at the Keeneland meet before returning to ride regularly in New York. This means that, for the next several weeks we can expect a steady diet of Cornelio Velasquez, David Cohen, Junior Alvarado, Irad Ortiz, Alan Garcia, and Eddie Castro before the other big names return to New York for good.

With 83 wins in 402 mounts (21% winners), there are days when Junior Alvarado can look like the best rider on the grounds. He's young and a little bit inconsistent, but he doesn't fall short in terms of talent. He finished the Aqueduct inner track meet third in the jockey standings and should be expected to keep winning races around here in bunches.

Irad Ortiz, meanwhile, continued to get a lot of live mounts despite recently losing his "bug," and finished the inner track meet with 66 wins from 414 starters for a solid win percentage of 16%. Ortiz recently lost his "bug" on February 2, and is now a fully-weighted journeyman rider, so it'll be interesting to see if he is able to keep his live mounts going strong enough to keep his winning percentage up where it currently is. Usually, when a rider loses his "bug," his winning percentage will soon drop at least a little - even under the best of circumstances. This fact of life for jockeys will also be affecting Ryan Curatolo, who also recently lost his "bug."

Besides the top jockeys in the standings, the other rider you want to pay close attention to and bet whenever he's an overlay - which should be often - is Eddie Castro. Castro returned a month ago from an absence after an injury sidelined him for part of 2011 and is quickly returning into top form. Castro might not ring a bell for you as a top local rider, but if you can remember back to the 2010-2011 Aqueduct inner track season, you will remember he enjoyed a dynamite breakout meet here behind Ramon Dominguez. Castro was the 6th-leading rider in the NYRA circuit in calendar year 2011 - despite missing significant time with his injury - and should never be overlooked, especially before the big names return from Keeneland while Dominguez is sidelined.

Even with Ortiz and Curatolo recently losing their bugs, two other apprentice jockeys on the grounds have each stepped up to fill the void with both Jose Rodriguez and Samuel Camacho Jr. both doing their share of good riding on the local circuit.

Samuel Camacho, a 20-year-old from Venezuela, started riding at Aqueduct on January 15, and through March 30 compiled a NYRA record of 21 wins from 167 starts (13% wins), good for 10th place in the inner-track standings despite having missed the first six weeks of the meet. It should be noted that 7 of Camacho's first 11 winners came riding for trainer Gary Contessa. The dup continues to be a strong jockey/trainer combination. Camacho was also injured in the spill where Ramon Dominguez got hurt, but Camacho is not expected to miss any time.

Jose Rodriguez, meanwhile, came north to ride at Aqueduct after riding the second-half of 2011 as an apprentice at Calder. After a slow start at Calder, Rodriguez's career began to pick up a little steam with an improved record at Calder during the month of November. Rodriguez is beginning to catch-on more and more in New York, and he has been getting more and more live mounts. It shows in his record, which was 13 wins from his first 218 Aqueduct inner track mounts - good for 11th in the Aqueduct inner track standings. Rodriguez's win percentage should improve from the low 6% he tallied on the inner track when she spent much of the meet riding big longshots.

AQUEDUCT TRAINERS

David Jacobson got hot during the last month of the Aqueduct inner track meet and surpassed Richard Dutrow to win the training title with 39 victories on the inner track. Jacobson won with 26% of his starters at the meet - good, but still not in the same ballpark as Dutrow who won at a 39% on the inner track. Plenty of Aqueduct trainers had solid and successful seasons this winter, and many have won at high percentages and posted strong ROIs, but there was still nobody close to having the kind of dominating meet from a training standpoint than Richard Dutrow based on his gian winning percentage. Unfortunately for Dutrow backers, he has now become one of those "can't bet on him and can't bet against him" type of trainers, because Dutrow's average win payoff was in the very low neighborhood of $5.50.

Much of Jacobson's late surge came thanks to his shameless penchant for claiming horses and then immediately dropping them in class. This claim-and-drop maneuver can often be a "red flag" for a lot of trainer, but not for Jacobson who pulls the move often and relies on it for his high win percentage and for a proportionate amount of his overall winners.

Todd Pletcher was largely invisible at the Aqueduct inner track meet. He managed to win 19 races with only 82 starters for a still good 23% win percentage, but he was largely absent - instead choosing to dominate at Gulfstream Park all winter long. Many of Pletcher's horses will go right on to Keeneland from Florida, but many will also be New York-bound, as well, so we expect a giant Aqueduct main track meet from him.

Other trainers like Pletcher who won a lot of races with relatively few starters on the inner track included Kiaran McLaughlin with 24 winners from 76 starters (32% wins!), and Richard Violette with 21 winners from 65 starters (also 32% wins!). McLaughlin's dominant categories have included allowances, where he has won a remarkable 47% of his races, and routes, where he has won a big 38% of his races. Violette, meanwhile, did great in stakes and handicap races, and also did well with maiden claimers, and in route races. Both McLaughlin and Violette were particularly hot during the final month of the inner track meet.

A couple of other intesting spot plays have included betting Dominic Galluscio in route races, where he won at a 30% win percentage, and trainer Bruce Levine in 3-year-old races, where he has won at a 30% win percentage. As usual, also continue to bet Bruce Levine with horses adding first-time Lasix, or as we call it in this case - "the Bruce Juice."

Here is a look at the overall top 12 trainers stats to date at the Aqueduct inner track meet:

Aqueduct Inner Track Leading Trainers (11/30/11 - 3/18/12)

Trainer

Wins

Win%

ITM%

David Jacobson

39

26%

63%

Richard Dutrow

35

39%

67%

Rudy Rogriguez

31

24%

59%

Chris Englehart

28

17%

43%

Kiaran McLaughlin

24

32%

61%

Gary Contessa

21

14%

48%

Dominic Galluscio

21

22%

53%

Richard Violette

21

32%

68%

Linda Rice

20

13%

40%

Bruce Levine

20

19%

50%

Todd Pletcher

19

23%

59%

Mike Hushion

16

30%

65%

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 lotta Aqueduct inner track past performances. The Aqueduct inner track is often known for its track biases, but all things considered, this season in the inner track has been amongst the most fair and bias-free in recent memory. Here is my list of Aqueduct inner track biases to take note of so far this year:

Aqueduct Inner Track Biases
Mar. 16 - Outside preferred
Mar. 4 - Outside bias, dead rail on drying out track unkind to inside speed
Feb. 29 - Speed good races 1-5; outside good races 6-9 on wet and downgrading track
Feb. 20 - Speed died down inside
Feb. 15 - Helped to be on or close
Feb. 12 - Speed good
Feb. 9 - Helped to be on or close to the pace; inside good
Feb. 2 - All 5 routes won from off the pace
Jan. 28 - Speed bias on drying out track
Jan. 27 - Had to be on or close in slop
Jan. 26 - 8 of 9 winners & 19 of 27 ITM finishers on or close; rail not the best
Jan. 25 - Outside rally wide bias
Jan. 22 - Helped to be on or close
Jan. 20 - Rally wide bias
Jan. 19 - Inside bias; had to be on or close to the pace
Jan. 15 - Slow rail, outside better
Jan. 14 - Had to stay on or close to pace
Jan. 12 - Speed good in mud
Jan. 11 - Rally wide bias
Jan. 8 - Outside preferred
Jan. 5 - Outside preferred
Jan. 1 - Outside preferred

With the exception of an anti-inside speed track on Presidents' Day when front-runners had a difficult time holding on into the stretch after running into a strong headwind down the backstretch, the Aqueduct inner track has played relatively fairly for much of February. March was even better with only two bias days noted - including outside biases on both March 4 and March 16.

When it comes to post positions, the 2011-2012 winter inner track meet showed little consistent bias or favoritism for any post or group of posts in either sprint races or route races. The one exception worth mentioning has been in sprint races, where you can make a case that a horse needed to draw one of the inside five posts 1-5 in order to have its best chance. Posts 1, 2, 4, and 5 all won between 15%-16% in sprint races, while no other post position enjoyed a winning percentage higher than 13%. Far, far outside posts in sprints, on the other hand, were difficult to overcome. Starters from those posts 10-12 combined went only 4-for-107 for just under a 4% winning percentage.

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.

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!

21
Nov

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