11/14/2008 1:00AM

Expect the unexpected seems par for Big A


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - To get an idea of how challenging the handicapping has been through the first two weeks at Aqueduct, one need only consult the trainer and jockey standings to see most of the leaders have recorded average win prices comfortably into the double digits.

Gary Contessa topped the trainers list with five winners that averaged a return of $11.90. Right behind with four wins were Tom Albertrani ($16 average), Seth Benzel ($28.10), and Rick Dutrow ($10). Among a handful of trainers with three wins were Randi Persaud ($42.50) and John Hertler ($30). Even Bruce Levine, whose horses are routinely hammered at the windows, was averaging a payoff of $18.50 with two winners.

Chaos reigned among the riders as well: Eclipse winners John Velazquez and Edgar Prado and two-time New York champ Eibar Coa combined to go 0 for 34 on the grass, and the top dozen jockeys were a combined 17 for 78 (22 percent) with favorites.

A number of factors have contributed to the parimutuel mayhem:

* This is the first NYRA meet where mud calks are not allowed. As fate would have it, the track was sealed and muddy opening day, Oct. 29. All told, the track had some degree of moisture in it during six of the first 10 days, including drying-out tracks that went from good to fast on three days, and last Saturday's good-to-muddy-to-sloppy surface.

* In the meet's first turf race, the streaking Flibberjibit ($6.80) won her fifth straight race since being claimed by Bruce Brown, prevailing by a desperate head. After that, however, 21 consecutive favorites had gone down to defeat through Thursday, which strongly suggests John Q. Punter is completely mystified as to how to deal with months of turf-sprint form on firm-to-hard turf at Belmont and Saratoga.

* A greater abundance of "lesser of evils" races, where the crowd simply settles on a horse that doesn't seem quite as hopeless as the others. In many cases, the majority of the field has been inactive recently, awaiting the return of lower-rung conditions.

* A changing of the guard, as the higher-profile stables filter out to their winter destinations.

By the way, with three winners - Lime Rickey ($7.90), Exchanging Kisses ($8.30), and Just a Warning ($14.40) - Frank Alexander was the leading turf trainer through Thursday. Seth Benzel, a former Todd Pletcher assistant who went out on his own earlier this year, has put over first-time turf winners False Impression ($80.50) and Never Retreat ($13).

Going forward through the final weeks of grass racing, here's a handy tip: Determine who the early pacesetter will be, and then draw a big fat "X" through his name. Through the first 22 turf races, such a procedure would have eliminated only two winners, Exchanging Kisses and Blue Hill Bay - and if you had Blue Hill Bay at $131, I would like to borrow your Ouija Board. It's counterintuitive given the hairpin turns, but deep-closing winners have been running amok on turf: Dear Contender ($17.20), Baletti ($13.60), Benton Drive ($13.20), Fairway Drive ($17.20), Gozzip Girl ($21.20), Smart Engagement ($23), and Chestoria ($11.20) all made up early seven- to 13-length deficits.

In the dirt sprints, as is to be expected, the handy tip is to determine who the early pacesetter will be, and then look for corroborating evidence to support a wager. In 38 short sprints (one at 5 1/2 furlongs and 37 at six furlongs), no less than 33 - nearly 87 percent - could be classified as early-pace types (1-2-3 or within two lengths of the lead at the pace call).

Things were more balanced in the 11 longer sprints (from 6 1/2 furlongs to 7 1/2 furlongs), where six winners (54.5 percent) fit the early-pace description.

If you're looking to consult a track profile for Saturday's Grade 3 Stuyvesant Handicap, which attracted eight older males, only two of Aqueduct's first 90 races were two-turn dirt routes, and both were won by the favorite: The unbeaten 3-year-old Storm Play ($3) wired a muddy overnight stakes opening day, and Rikman ($4.30) erased a deficit of nearly 10 lengths to win a starter handicap last Sunday.

The pace figures to be contested between Brilliant Son, a stretch-out who dueled through a 44.60 half-mile in his only dirt start this year, and Temporary Saint, who makes his fourth start in the past month and was compromised by a slow break last Friday in a race won by Cigar Mile-bound Bribon.

The garden spot may belong to the stalker Solar Flare, an import from Argentina whose second U.S. start was a near-miss in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap, and who returned from a seven-week freshening with a decisive allowance win at the Meadowlands recently.