Don’t Miss Aqueduct’s Underrated Spring Meet

DON'T MISS AQUEDUCT'S UNDERRATED SPRING MEET

By Noel Michaels - OTBLearningLabs.com - Special for JimHurley.com

The Aqueduct main track spring meet - which opens on Wednesday, April 1 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 in the spring, 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.

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 2015 Wood Memorial is Saturday, April 4, and it will headline a race card of four graded stakes races along with the G1-Carter Handicap, the G2-Gazelle and the G3-Bay Shore. The Wood Memorial, New York's premier Kentucky Derby prep race, is expected to attract a great field of Derby hopefuls led by the top finishers from the Gotham - El Kabeir, Tiz Shea D, and Classy Class (in that order) - and Far From Over, the winner of the Withers Stakes trained by Todd Pletcher.

The big name there is El Kabeir, who not only won the Gotham but also the Jerome and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, but keep in mind that his recent loss came against Far From Over in the Withers in what was only Far From Over's second career start. In addition, Far From Over overcame a bad stumble at the start of that race which appeared to cost him his best chance in the race. Based on that, plus the Pletcher factor, I would say Far From Over will be the horse to beat.

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 6.5-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 6.5-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 6.5 furlong and 7 furlong specialists (and sometimes even 7.5 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 a horse's career record box in the past performances for Aqueduct main track and turf course horses for the course. These horses are usually different than the inner track horses for the course and often can improve their fortunes immediately with the switch away from the inner track, turning the tables on the same horses who'd beaten them all winter. Conversely, stay on the lookout for inner track horses for the course. Those winter track lovers will likely take a downturn in form as soon as they step foot on the Big A 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, despite the rail post having a bad reputation in the main track's one-turn miles, 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 layoff 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 overlays that are 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 only about 15% of all turf winners at Aqueduct go wire-to-wire. In fact, not only aren't front runners good bets on the Aqueduct grass - but even the pace pressers sometimes don't fare too well, either. In total, about two-thirds of all grass winners should from the second flight, or further back, during the early stages of the running of the race. Therefore, bet strong finishers 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 past few 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.

TRAINERS

When it comes to the top trainers at Aqueduct, the story usually is all about leading trainer David Jacobson over the winter, and this season was no exception on the inner track. Jacobson leads the training standings in a runaway and won at a 27% win percentage. He'll probably do as well or better at this abbreviated Big A sprig meet. However, when it comes to making money, you are going to need to look deeper than Jacobson, because his horses are always heavily bet and often favored. Even his horses that aren't favored probably can be counted on to be big underlays.

In particular, Jacobson must be wagered on when he pulls his patented claim-and-drop maneuver - which would be a red flag for many other barns, but not his. He racks up the wins with class drops all year long. Aside from that, however, you've really gotta look beyond just betting David Jacobson trainees in order to make any real money.

Beyond Jacobson, you have to respect a couple of other trainers have also had highly exceptional winters this season on the Aqueduct inner track. The trainers in closest pursuit of Jacobson were Linda Rice, and Gary Gullo, who has rarely been better than he was this winter when he won roughly 27% of his races and was in-the-money nearly two-third of the time. Horses sent out from both of these trainers must be bet right now, because their ROIs are so much greater than the Jacobson horses that are always low-priced.

Plenty of Todd Pletcher horses and Kiaran McLaughin horses also won at the inner track meet, which should come as no surprise to anybody. These trainers, in particular, should continue to do great throughout April are beyond in New York, as their top strngs of horses return from out-of-town.

Finally, it should be noted that many of the big-name barns that go down to Florida for the winter were pretty quiet this year during the inner track meet. However, this group of top trainers will wake-up in a hurry, including big-names like Chad Brown, James Jerkens, Tom Albertrani, Shug McGaughey, Christophe Clement, and many others. Others. Just like clockwork as the temperatures start to rise, you know these guys will return from Florida, especially after Keeneland, and begin lighting it up in New York again this spring.

AQUEDUCT TRENDS FROM THE 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, and this past season was no exception with tons of cancelled days and a lot of outside biases in-between. February, in particular, was almost entirely affected by an outside bias on the inner track to various degrees, when the rail path was almost always slow and the outside almost always better. Here is my list of Aqueduct inner track biases for the 2014-2015 inner track season:

Aqueduct Inner Track Biases
(Through March 22)

Mar. 22 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
Mar. 7 - Speed advantage on souped-up Gotham stakes day track
Mar. 1 - Rally wide advantage
Feb. 28 - Outside stalk and rally wide bias, slow rail
Feb. 26 - Outside preferred on dead track
Feb. 22 - Outside bias, dead rail on muddy sealed track
Feb. 14 - Speed good, perhaps outside still preferred
Feb. 12 - Had to be on or close, perhaps outside still better
Feb. 11 - Outside advantage
Feb. 8 - Rally wide advantage
Feb. 7 - Helped to be on or close, outside preferred
Feb. 6 - Outside bias, dead rail
Feb. 5 - Outside bias on "good" wet track
Jan. 2 - Outside preferred
Dec. 31 - Outside preferred
Dec. 28 - Speed good
Dec. 12 - Helped to be on or close to the pace on drying track
Dec. 5 - Outside bias
Dec. 4 - Outside good on drying track

When it comes to post positions, the 2015-2015 winter inner track meet was up to its old tricks this past season, favoring horses breaking from the inside three post positions in routes, and making life difficult for horses breaking from posts 9 and outward at every distance.

The fact that far outside posts didn't do even better at this past season's Aqueduct inner track meet is strange, because, as noted, outside trips have did so well for much of the meet, particularly throughout February. To me, since the track was favoring outside trips, but the outside posts still couldn't show good win percentages, that meant that the outside posts were disadvantageous more often than not this inner track season.

In route races on the inner track, the inside posts (1-3) were the preferred place to be, with a slight advantage over horses drawing the middle part of the gate (posts 4-8), and a stronger advantage over horses drawing the outside posts (9-12). In total, horses breaking from inside posts 1-3 won nearly half of the routes run on the inner track throughout season. Horses drawn far outside, on the other hand rarely won from posts 9 and outward.

In sprints, it really didn't matter what post a horse started from, as long as it was no wider than about posts 1-thru-8. Outside of post 8, things got a little sketchier for the horses drawn in posts 9-12. Horses breaking from those gates have won only about a combined win percentage of 7%.

Recap

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!

22
Sep

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