12/05/2002 1:00AM

Consider any Delaware shipper dangerous

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - It wasn't until March 20, the first day of spring, that racing was canceled due to inclement weather or unsafe track conditions at Aqueduct last winter, and by that time racing had already shifted back to the main track.

Mother Nature's opening salvo of this season, therefore, was taken by many local railbirds as an ominous sign of what might be in store this time around.

Winter, after all, is still technically two weeks away, yet the snow that blanketed the New York area on Thursday is already more than was received all of last season.

Believe it or not, on this corresponding Saturday a year ago (Dec. 8), conditions at Aqueduct were still favorable enough to run a turf race for maidens - and the course was labeled firm! Those looking for the turf course this Saturday will find it buried under the snow.

The silver lining in all this, I told myself in the midst of shoveling the driveway and exhuming my 1998 Cavalier convertible from a massive snowdrift, was the prescient decision by New York Racing Association management to call Thursday's card off early.

Spared what would have undoubtedly been a torturous commute, a public handicapper returning from a week's respite was instead afforded the chance to catch up on all the assorted busywork that is part of the trade: annotating result charts; calculating daily track variants; reviewing replays; scanning through two issues of DRF Simulcast Weekly; and so forth.

An aspect of the latter stages of Aqueduct's fall meet that merits discussion is the performance of shippers. With the notable exceptions of stakes horses like Toccet (Laurel), Congaree (Santa Anita), Sightseek (Keeneland), Evening Attire (Arlington), and Balto Star (Arlington), ship-in winners during the final fortnight of the meet came primarily from Delaware Park and The Meadowlands, two tracks whose meets recently concluded.

The only exceptions, besides the stakes horses listed above, were Addicks, a 2-5 winner who had last raced at Keeneland but who had been stabled in New York earlier in the year, and Finger Lakes invader Miss Ivy Hilton, who wired a $35,000 claimer at 7-1.

The rest of the out-of-towners - 86 of them if you're scoring at home - were coming off a last-race line at either Delaware Park or The Meadowlands.

Racing at slots-fueled Delaware continued to thrive this summer and fall, but the quality of racing at "Club Med" fell well short of what it was a year ago, and some regulars of my acquaintance termed it an unmitigated disaster.

In each case, the day-to-day realities were duly reflected by their respective equine emissaries to New York.

During the last two weeks of Aqueduct's fall meet, Delaware shippers compiled a very strong 10-for-34 record, with a $2 flat bet on each of them returning $106.60 for a $68 investment. Even subtracting the longest-priced winner, Ginzano (14-1), they still produced a profit.

Horses who last raced at The Meadowlands compiled a 5-for-52 record (not including Climb, who won a non-wagering event for amateur riders) during the same period. A $2 flat bet investment of $104 returned just $81.60, for a net loss of $22.40.

A look through the vastly underappreciated "Winners' Books" section of DRF Simulcast Weekly helps to explain why handicappers should accord more respect to shippers from Delaware Park as opposed to those from across the river.

Both tracks featured a bottom-level claiming price of $5,000, but while the Beyer par for such horses at Delaware was 75, the $5,000 par at The Meadowlands was 65.

And keeping in mind the adage "Money makes the mare go," it's noteworthy that allowance purses at Delaware were roughly twice the amount offered in New Jersey. Moreover, the $39,000 purses offered by Delaware for maiden special weight races were not far removed from the $45,000 that non-claiming maidens run for in New York.

This is not to suggest, however, that all horses from The Meadowlands will be outgunned on Aqueduct's frozen tundra, because value may sometimes be found in claiming races.

The reason, again, has to do with economics. The $10,000 claimers at Delaware Park ran for exorbitant purses of $19,000 in November, and horses of the same description at The Meadowlands competed for $16,900 pots. Importantly, $10,000 was not the basement at either track, but $10,000 is as low as they go in New York.

By way of comparison, when the 6-year-old gelding Puncher dropped several rungs down the ladder to win Aqueduct's inner-track opener for a $10,000 tag on Wednesday, the purse was a mere $11,000.

Respecting the overall strength of horses who were based at Delaware Park is likely to pay dividends at other circuits, as well.

The second-longest priced winner on the Thanksgiving Day card at Fair Grounds, the traditional opener, was Delaware shipper Skate Away at $18.80.

At Calder Race Course during the week of Nov. 25-Dec. 1, three Delaware shippers ran in maiden special weight sprints. Something Silver won by 7 1/2 lengths; King Taras won by 1 3/4 lengths; and Fourtimesaruler finished second behind a debut winner who was bet down to even money.

Taking that a step further, a potentially lucrative spot play for the early stages of the upcoming Gulfstream Park meet will be the freshened arrivals from Delaware.