11/28/2011 1:52PM

Aqueduct: Casino cash lures new faces to inner-track meet

Barbara D. Livingston
The long-awaited opening of Aqueduct's casino (at right) is expected to boost purses in 2012.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – After an admittedly brutal 2010-11 winter meet in terms of quality and quantity, New York Racing Association officials are cautiously optimistic that the lure of increased purse money will bring a more appealing product to this winter’s Aqueduct inner track season, which gets under way Wednesday.

Beginning Wednesday, there will be 84 scheduled days of racing over the inner track through March 31. Aqueduct’s main track will open April 4 for a brief 14-day stint before racing shifts to Belmont Park on April 27.

The long-awaited opening of Aqueduct’s casino – which took place Oct. 28 – is expected to infuse purses in 2012. In September, NYRA announced that a 36-perent purse increase is scheduled to go into effect on Jan 1., with daily purses at Aqueduct averaging $375,000 a day compared with $275,000 in 2011.

That average takes into account stakes purses, which will increase significantly. Stakes that carried $65,000 pots last winter are going to be worth $75,000 and in some cases $100,000. Stakes for 3-year-olds will increase, as the Count Fleet (Jan. 7) will go up to $150,000, the Grade 3 Withers will be brought back to replace the Whirlaway (Feb. 4) and be worth $200,000, and the Grade 3 Gotham will go from $250,00 to $400,000 and be run March 3. NYRA won’t release its entire Aqueduct stakes schedule until after the Board of Trustees formally approves it at an early-December board meeting.

The planned purse increases have enticed several new outfits to New York for the winter, including those of Dale Romans, Eddie Kenneally, Ken McPeek, Jamie Ness, Eric Reed, Jason Servis, and Juan Serey. Some New York regulars such as Bill Mott plan to leave small divisions behind, while others such as Chad Brown will keep more horses here than in past years.

“We want to keep our foot in the door so they don’t move us out and say you didn’t support us in the wintertime,” said Mott, who plans to keep about a dozen horses here.

P.J. Campo, a NYRA vice-president and its racing secretary, said he is hopeful there will be between 1,800 to 2,000 horses stabled on the grounds this winter, compared to “barely 1,500” he said were here last winter.

Campo hopes the additional horses will help bump field size in some of the allowance races that either didn’t go or went with just five horses last winter.

“I’m hoping some of the better races that went last year with five will get seven or eight,” Campo said. “If we can pick up two horses in those categories that’s a big deal.”

Though there will be higher purses, it won’t keep this circuit’s better horses – especially the 3-year-olds of 2012 as well as turf horses – from going to south Florida for the Gulfstream Park meeting which begins Saturday.

“I think everyone still has to be realistic to the fact that it is winter racing, that there is a horse shortage out there,” Campo said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what to expect with the money. I don’t know if we’re going to get more horses shipping in from other tracks.

“With the increase in purses, some of the new outfits, some of the bigger outfits keeping more horses here – all of that helps,” Campo added. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Campo hopes Mother Nature will allow him to utilize the turf course through at least Dec. 11. There is a pick six carryover of $31,461 entering Wednesday’s program, and three races in the sequence are scheduled for the turf. But there was a 70-percent chance of showers Tuesday and a 30-percent of morning showers Wednesday.

The eighth race is an optional claimer scheduled at a mile on the turf, but has six horses entered as main-track only entrants.

Kenneally sends out One Note Samba, who is unbeaten in four starts on turf, though they have all come in races at six furlongs or shorter. Xodo comes off a second-place finish at this level on Nov. 9 and will attempt to break trainer Gary Gullo’s 0-for-101 skid on turf dating back to 2002.

Though Lunar Victory made all eight of his starts on turf in Europe, the Speightstown colt was sent to Mott by Juddmonte Farms “to run on dirt,” Mott said. “He’s worked well on the dirt.”

Lubango and Joe Corrigan would also fit in this field if the race is transferred to the dirt.