02/11/2005 12:00AM

Big A's inner a haven for longshots


NEW YORK - This is the time of the year when a sensible New York horseplayer should be taking his annual turnout. You can't play the game for 52 weeks a year without losing whatever's left of your mind, and the inner-track meeting at Aqueduct is the safest to skip in terms of continuity with the rest of the year. As they say about Vegas: what happens in February at Aqueduct stays in February at Aqueduct. Missing some maiden-claiming trips isn't going to cost you come Belmont and Saratoga.

I'm still waiting to start that turnout. At these prices, who can afford to grow a winter coat and graze?

Aqueduct this winter has become a stabber's paradise, with plausible and implausible longshots lighting up the board nearly every day. Consider just the nine cards from Jan. 29 through Thursday. Six of them ended with a carryover in the pick six, and two of the three times it was hit the payoffs were $88,769 and $154,111. A few highlights:

Jan. 30: Country Be Gold wins the Aqueduct Handicap, returning $47.60.

Feb. 2: Napoleon Solo wins the featured eighth race, paying $106 to win and sparking a $424,209 carryover.

Feb. 3: Fiddlers Pride wins the seventh at $41.60, keying the $154,111 pick six.

Feb. 5: All nine winners pay double digits including Sassy Again at $85 in the finale, headlining a $114,627 superfecta.

Feb. 6: Tergesti takes the opener at $55.50.

Wednesday: Symphony Salute wins the sixth at $48.80.

Thursday: Kitty Zip takes the sixth at $79.50.

The 81 races in this span yielded eight winners at 19-1 or more. That is the same number of horses that paid $40 or more in the entire six-week, 342-race Saratoga meeting last year, and that includes a steeplechaser. Only three horses in 330 flat races at Saratoga paid 30-1 or better last summer. That's already happened three times this month at The February Place To Be.

Is this just a random flurry of crazy results? Not entirely. Aqueduct in the winter is actually a pretty interesting handicapping laboratory with a number of factors that make it unusually wide open. With the Bobby Frankels, Jerry Baileys, and Edgar Prados away, the mice of summer are major players, and there's more parity than usual in the ranks. You know all those trainers who have records like 4 for 103 by November? Guess where those four wins came. And when you get past Richard Migliore (24 percent) and Rafael Bejarano (21 percent before starting a recent suspension), there are 10 other live riders winning at between a 10 and 15 percent clip.

There's also the longstanding misconception that the Aqueduct inner track is nothing but a speedway for the fainthearted where closers are doomed. Wrong. When the best horse gets loose early, he's usually gone, but that's true everywhere. Horses such as Napoleon Solo and Sassy Again can and do circle the field from far back on the inner track, frequently because half the jockeys ride the two-turn races as if they're two-furlong races.

It would be charming to think that cutting off some rebate houses has opened up the tote board, but that seems unlikely. If anything, NYRA probably did a recent favor for the guys who bet big to break even. The kind of obvious, top-figure front-runners the whales love to bang on their laptops have been losing regularly. Napoleon Solo probably would have paid more than $106 if the grinders had still been in the pool.

It can be a rewarding or expensive time to play, but either way you can get into and out of all sorts of trouble a lot faster than usual. During such times, the most rigorous players may want to relax their standards and loosen up a little, making the occasional five-horse box or hitting the usually inadvisable "all" button here and there. Sassy Again at $85 was actually haveable (first-time trainer Allen Iwinski), but the 89-1 shot that ran second for a $2,926 exacta was not - unless you wheeled.

The best thing about this Brigadoon of longshots is that it provides positive reinforcement for the idea that imagination and creativity count for something in playing horses. The worst thing a handicapper can do is get bludgeoned by predictable results and short prices into thinking that following the crowd and the odds drops is the only way to play the game.

Taking lonely, independent stands usually leaves you lonely and broke and cursing the bonehead ride that made your 41-1 shot run only a close fourth. When a few of them actually get up to win, it gives you the courage to keep trying to elude the obvious, even at Saratoga.