11/20/2003 1:00AM

Answers are blowing in the wind


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - New York horseplayers who looked out their windows last Thursday and Friday mornings saw nothing but beautiful blue skies, and probably went about their usual routines of mapping out potential bets at Aqueduct with thoughts of "clear and fast" in their heads.

Once they stepped outside, though, all of their preparatory work was literally gone with the wind. Both of those Big A programs were canceled because of dangerously high and sustained wind, with gusts reaching nearly 60 miles per hour.

That was an unusual weather event, to be sure, but those familiar with the topography of Ozone Park will tell you that dealing with meaningful wind in this neck of the woods is nothing new: The end of the backstretch chute is perhaps a well-struck 2-iron from Jamaica Bay; roughly a 3-wood past the backstretch stable gate is John F. Kennedy International Airport; and it's a mere pitching wedge from the far turn to the massive parking lot built in 1959 to accommodate weekend crowds of 50,000 people. Half of the lot is now occupied by a Home Depot.

Surrounded as it is by water, runways, and low-lying structures for miles around, Aqueduct offers no place to hide when the wind blows.

The age of simulcasting has turned horse racing into an electronic video game in the minds of many, but it's worth remembering that horse racing is an outdoor sport, and that Thoroughbreds are flesh-and-blood creatures with thousands of years of evolution behind them. Because of their instinctive fear of falling (running away is their first and only line of defense against predators), many horses will simply "shut it down" and not put forth anything resembling their best effort when running in extremely windy conditions.

Prevailing wisdom about wind direction says that a backstretch tailwind (infield flags blowing right to left) is a front-runner's wind, and a backstretch headwind (flags blowing left to right) is a stretch-runner's wind.

The backstretch tailwind theoretically blows the front-runner along on the lead, and when the stretch runners fan out in the stretch they are stymied by what is now a headwind.

Conversely, as the theory goes, the backstretch headwind forces the front-runner to work harder in the early going, and the stretch-runners get the wind at their backs when they swing out in the stretch.

It sounds logical in theory, but it doesn't hold up to long-term examination. After annotating Daily Racing Form result charts with wind notations for the past dozen years, I have found no correlation whatsoever between wind direction and running styles.

That is not to say, however, that wind is an unimportant variable for handicappers to consider. Though wind is invisible, its effects can be plainly seen by breaking down individual race fractions in the result charts, and there is nothing theoretical about the wind's influence in this area.

Depending on velocity and direction, wind can speed up or slow down first-quarter times on the backstretch, second-quarter times (in sprints) on the turn, or last-quarter times in the lane. Complicating matters further, the wind may diminish or intensify midway through a racing card, or change direction slightly, or do a complete about-face, and this is perhaps the main reason that pace-figure making can be such a treacherous and sometimes imprecise exercise.

In fact, the effect of wind on internal fractions is probably the main flaw of one commonly practiced method for calculating pace variants, which is to simply apply two-thirds of the final-time variant to obtain a pace variant. It works on those days when track speed is spread evenly, but the majority of the time it yields a number that bears little or no relation to reality.

This past Wednesday, to cite just the most recent example, a strong sustained wind from off Jamaica Bay blew the fields down the sloppy backstretch but practically stopped them in their tracks from the quarter pole to the wire. Larger Than Life, the winner of the first race, ran her opening half-mile with the wind in a sprightly 45.78 seconds, but she required 55.76 to run her last half, including an against-the-wind final quarter in a laborious 29.58.

Last Saturday, the day after the two canceled days, there was a strong northwesterly headwind on the backstretch. The one-mile opener featured a first half-mile run by Bachelor's Delight in 49.74 seconds and a last half in 51.56.

Because of the effects of wind, my variants for those two days indicated that Larger Than Life's 45.78 half was roughly equivalent to Bachelor's Delight's 49.74, even though the times were nearly four seconds apart.

Because both of them are 3-year-old fillies and therefore might line up in the same gate one day, it's helpful to know the details that led to their respective half-mile times.

It goes without saying that adjusted fractions are a key tool for analyzing pace matchups. They are also vital for predicting whether sprinters can stretch out, or whether routers are quick enough to effectively turn back.

So make it a habit to check those infield flags at the start of the day. When that's not possible, consult the "Track Trends" in DRF Simulcast Weekly to get daily information about the wind. There are some days when its power will blow your mind.