10/31/2007 11:00PM

Big A does have a few saving graces

EmailNEW YORK - While everyone was focusing on those fancy races by the Jersey Shore last week, Aqueduct opened up for the six-month stand that is the dark side of the moon for New York racing: 26 weeks at the same joint, with nearly five months between the first and second of only three Grade 1 races, not to mention the inevitable February afternoon when statebred maiden claimers will run a mile in 1:45 and there will still be 30 lengths stringing out a six-horse field.

But it's really not as bad as it sounds. No one will mistake the aesthetics for Belmont or Saratoga, but there's a case to be made that the Big A is a more comfortable place to play horses than its fancier cousins. And unless there's an evil new construction project in the works, we won't have to witness a single turf sprint in New York until the week of the 2008 Kentucky Derby. That alone is worth a celebratory bowl of clam chowder in the Manhattan Terrace.

Of course the host association continues in bankruptcy, the casino that was approved in 2001 to bring Saratoga-sized purses to the Big A is still unbuilt, and the parking lots remain a jumble of concrete barriers. Once you drive yourself through the maze and get inside, though, the place is actually kind of cozy. No fooling. The New York Racing Association found enough loose change under its sofa cushions to slap some paint on the walls and fix up a couple of the bars where regulars huddle. The extra dollar or two to get into the Equestris area in the clubhouse is always a good investment, putting you in what has long been the nicest area at any New York track.

The racing has been more than decent so far, and usually stays that way through the big Saturday card after Thanksgiving with the Cigar Mile, Remsen, and Demoiselle. Etched and Elusive Lady will be back for Remsen and Demoiselle after scoring promising victories in the Nashua and Tempted last Saturday, and Midnight Lute could put a capper on his season with an appearance in the Cigar. Why wouldn't he? He's 3-5 regardless of who else shows up, figures to thrive at a one-turn mile, and can't possibly lose the Eclipse as champion sprinter even if he falters.

The plan is to keep Midnight Lute in training next year, and off his truly sensational victories in the Forego and the Breeders' Cup Sprint since his throat surgery, the sky seems the limit. Maybe he can stretch out even beyond a mile, and if Curlin escapes the clutches of the breeders and continues racing, the two of them could be headed for the top of the racing world in 2008.

For now, though, those are wintry dreams and the business at hand is more prosaic, though it can make the blood run just as quickly. There were pick-six carryovers on four of the first six cards at Aqueduct, culminating in a $243,011 carryover into Thursday, which attracted nearly $800,000 in additional action. Shaky 2-1 favorites won the first three legs, leaving most of the world alive and hopeful, then came a classic Aqueduct zinger and words no horseplayer has ever heard Tom Durkin utter before: "Classic Marilyn is coming back!"

Classic Marilyn, a 5-year-old Sky Classic mare bred and owned by sports-radio personality Mike Francessa of "Mike and the Mad Dog" renown, came into Thursday's seventh race with a career slate of 2 for 39. In 19 of those 39 starts, she was in front after a half-mile, but has made a career of surrendering immediately once collared. Fighting back is not her style. She seemed well on her way to a 2-for-40 record once Cori's Star passed her on the inside in deep stretch Thursday, usually a cue for two or three others to clunk past her too for minor awards - she had been off the board in 11 straight starts, fading late each time.

Today, though, Jorge Chavez somehow got her going again - this qualifies as a feat roughly equal to splitting the atom or carrying a snowball intact through Hades - and she came back on Cori's Star to prevail by a neck at $34.40. So even with three favorites to start and the favorite and third choices winning the last two legs, the pick six paid a whopping $164,081 to four Marilyn fans, leaving a small army of grumpy players unconsoled by 5-of-6 door prizes worth an insulting $316 each.

It wasn't exactly Curlin and Midnight Lute, but it was a more entertaining way to start November than retreating to a cave and hibernating till opening day at Belmont a mere 25 weeks hence.