12/04/2008 1:00AM

Don't be too quick to shout "bias" at Big A

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Over the course of the next four months, one of the important judgments handicappers playing Aqueduct will make is gauging whether the inner-dirt track favored early speed and to what extent.

Some unavoidable subjectivity goes with the territory, but one thing is for sure: The better you read the track, the better your chances for success.

It didn't take long for a common phenomenon to occur and put those skills to the test: Five of the first six races on the winterized surface were won wire to wire, so there must have been an opening-day speed bias, right?

Not really. A closer look at Wednesday's results revealed none of the tell-tale signs of a speed bias: horses unfathomably hanging on; lengthy winning margins; and little if any position change behind them.

* Yes, the day began with four winners who led all the way. But Summus ($6.30), China Wavered ($4.50), Aswaaq ($5.50), and Confirmondi ($4.30) were all favorites, and perfectly logical winners on paper. The fifth front-end winner was harder to figure, but in retrospect Megadeed ($20) had more angles than a three-cushion billiard shot as she switched from turf to dirt, added blinkers, and returned from a freshening for a new trainer.

* Margins of victory were hardly lopsided: China Wavered and Confirmondi won clear by better than three lengths, but were also the two shortest-priced winners on the card; meanwhile, Summus prevailed in the opener by a mere half-length, while Aswaaq and Megadeed were life and death in photo finishes.

* Lots of position change behind the winners was another clue the track was even: In race 1 (field of eight), the 2-3-4 finishers were running 7-6-4 at the first call; in race 2 (field of six), the 2-3-4 finishers were 3-5-4 early; in race 7 (field of 12), the 2-3-4 finishers were 9-6-8 early, and at boxcar odds of 7-1, 24-1, and 26-1; longshots don't make up ground like that into the teeth of a bias.

For record-keeping purposes, Wednesday can be categorized succinctly with the notation "5w," reflecting five wire-to-wire winners but otherwise no connotation of a bias; it was merely the first of many days to come this winter when the majority of winners grab the lead.

To be sure, early speed enjoys more than its share of good days on the inner track, but this is due to far less mystical factors. On such a tight-turned layout, saving ground is paramount, and horses' chances of getting stopped in traffic on the inside are directly proportional to the number of horses in their way; three-to-four wide trips that win at Belmont do not win nearly as often on the inner. And despite the fact that good horses can come from anywhere - and such good ones as Affirmed Success, Xtra Heat, and Smarty Jones have run here in winters past - the focus is on cheaper horses that tend to be easily discouraged when they are outsprinted early.

Also keep in mind that:

* Saving ground is important not only because the turns are so sharp, but also because there are frequently two of them in play. On the New York circuit, there will be more two-turn dirt routes during the winter than during spring, summer, and fall combined.

* While a long run down the chute and the sweeping far turn at Belmont plays to long-striding brute strength (think Easy Goer and Curlin), the inner track rewards athleticism and nimbleness, specifically cornering ability and smooth lead changes.

* As horses filter in from recently concluded fall meets nearby, accurate appraisal of shippers will be vital through the early stages of the meet, and often lucrative due to the crowd's inherent distrust of the unfamiliar.

Toward establishing an order of preference among the invaders, a look through the most recent issues of DRF Simulcast Weekly suggests that if the old adage "money makes the mare go" is true (and it is), the pecking order has evolved significantly. Consider the all-too-familiar claiming sprints restricted to nonwinners of two races lifetime, and the purses these one-time winners ran for this fall at the most common feeder tracks:

TRACKN2L CLM.PRICE PURSE

Calder$25K$15K

Churchill Downs$30-25K$18K

Delaware Park$25K$21K

Laurel Park$25K$18K

Meadowlands$30-25K$25K

Philadelphia Park$25K$25K

All else being equal, the newcomers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania may rate the edge.

Note as well that in the restricted claimers from now through March, horses coming out of first-level allowance races at Suffolk Downs are not necessarily outclassed. Similarly, refugees from Finger Lakes may be quite capable of holding their own in the lower ranks of claiming races restricted to New York-breds.