02/02/2006 12:00AM

Big A favorites hard to beat now

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - From the week after Thanksgiving to about New Year's Day, the first part of Aqueduct's winter meet annually produces parimutuel fireworks. The fields are large and brimming with horses that can be hard to assess - grass horses trying the dirt at the end of the season; layoffs, including 2-year-olds who had one or two starts during the summer before going back to the drawing board; older runners that showed an affinity for the inner track once upon a time; and shippers from the New Jersey and Mid-Atlantic circuits.

But form settles down in New York right about the time the holiday credit card bills come rolling in. The grass horses that didn't handle the dirt have either been put away until spring or shipped to Florida; the layoffs and shippers have been around the racetrack a couple times under watchful eyes; and handicappers have gotten a handle on the new wrinkles in the condition book for claiming races and New York-bred races.

As the second half of the meet got under way this week, the best piece of handicapping advice was this: now is not the time to be a wise guy. After winning 13 of 45 races during the first week of 2006 (28.8 percent), favorites from Jan. 8 through the fifth race on Thursday won 60 of 140 races, a 42.8 win percentage, which is roughly 10 points above the universal average.

If you're playing multi-race exotics, it's cost efficient right now to scale back combinations. Instead of trying to beat a couple of solid-looking favorites and going 2x2x3 in a pick three for 12 combinations at $1 each, you might get more bang for your buck by pounding the most likely winner 1x1x3 for $4 apiece.

When there is an odds-on favorite, and there will be many over the next several weeks, wait for the occasional spot where the second- and third-choices look unappetizing and key the mortal lock over a couple of sleepers.

From now until basically the opening of Belmont Park's spring meet in May, what you see in your Daily Racing Form is usually what you'll get on the track.

Notes from the first five weeks of the year:

* The two best 3-year-olds here this winter ran in different races less than an hour apart on Jan. 7. Sweetnorthernsaint, who had been disqualified from a 16-length win against $40,000 maiden-claiming sprinters at Laurel, shipped in to wire a six-furlong maiden special weight in 1:09.14 under a hand ride and received a Beyer Speed Figure of 102, a terrific figure for a newly turned 3-year-old making his third lifetime start. Currently quarantined at his home base due to the equine herpesvirus outbreak, Sweetnorth-ernsaint will stretch out to a mile on Saturday in the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel. The Miracle Wood will be overshadowed by the marquee races at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, but is definitely worth checking out for future reference.

Two races later, Achilles of Troy ran away and hid in the Count Fleet Stakes at a mile and 70 yards, winning off by 14 lengths just nine days after beating maiden sprinters. If you bet him in Round 1 of the Kentucky Derby Futures on the strength of that 104 Beyer in the Count Fleet, here's some good news: the figure has been adjusted to a 105. The gray colt remains on schedule for the Whirlaway Stakes here next Saturday, where he will meet essentially the same caliber of opposition, so we may not find out much more about him until the Triple Crown trail takes him on the road.

* The inner track historically favors horses with inside speed, but make a note of two dates when the surface really seemed to be carrying the early pace horses:

Jan. 19 - Six wire winners, and two other winners that were close up early. Even in the one race that produced an off-the-pace winner, early leader Genevil held on for third at 50-1.

Jan. 21 - All but one winner either led or was second at the first call, the lone exception being Woodbine shipper Symmetron, who stalked a four-way pace battle from great position in fifth on the turn. Among the early-pace winners was Happy Hunting in the Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap. By the way, the Aqueduct Handicap is the only graded stakes in New York for a stretch of almost three months, between the Dec. 18 Gravesend and the March 11 Toboggan.

There were also six front-running winners on Jan. 25, but five of them were favorites and the sixth was also logical at 7-2 against only four rivals, so the track-bias jury is still out.