01/13/2005 12:00AM

If this isn't a bias, I don't know what is

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Sometimes track bias can be a subtle and subjective thing, and handicappers may debate whether one was truly at work.

Other times a bias becomes so pronounced there can be no questioning its influence. This has been one of those times. Anyone watching the races on Aqueduct's inner dirt track, which as of this writing has not been labeled fast for a full card for nearly two weeks, probably agrees that horses on the rail setting or forcing the pace have enjoyed a demonstrable advantage lately.

Racing was canceled after three races last Saturday due to a sloppy, uneven surface, but the golden rail remained on Sunday as the track dried out from muddy to good. After a two-day break and some more rain, racing resumed Wednesday with another muddy and sealed track. Once again the vast majority of winners and in-the-money finishers were positioned on the rail for most or all of their races.

After inside speed romped in three of the first four races on Thursday, a call was put in to new track superintendent John Passero, who is widely regarded as one of the best in the business.

Just what is going on here?

"This has been baptism by fire," said Passero, who was hoping to batten down the hatches and roll the track after Thursday's races, in advance of another rain system that was forecast to arrive later that night and into Friday morning.

"After 44 years of doing this, sometimes I don't know what bias means - the shortest way home is the rail," said Passero, who took the reins earlier this week. "A bias means there has to be a lane or part of the track that's different, and I haven't found that. I walked the footprints and rode on the grader this morning, and for all the rain we've had, the track was even.

"The bias thing, to me, is because we've had a lot of floated-down racetracks," he said, "so the track has been packed down, there's less resistance to horses' hooves, and riders are 'sending.' The moisture level is the same, and cushion depth is within a quarter-inch of uniformity from the inside out. It's not like there's a wheel mark out there and the guys are riding that."

For your future handicapping purposes and information, Passero likes a tight racing surface, and plans to adjust the clay and silt content.

"I believe in keeping tracks tight to keep water out," Passero explained. "Clay and silt act as a binder and hold things together. These tracks are 7 to 8 percent silt and clay. I'm going to try to get those numbers up to 9 or 10 percent, and add some finer sands, so we can hold the water out, and so the track holds together better when it gets saturated. That's the goal, and it's very achievable with the right silt and sands in the right proportion."

Rail could be bonus for Saintliness

With rain forecast for Friday, the track may be wet yet again for Saturday's card, which features a stakes doubleheader of the Affectionately Handicap for older fillies and mares and the Count Fleet for 3-year-olds, which was originally scheduled for last Saturday.

A continuation of the current trend toward inside speed horses cannot be assumed 48 hours in advance, but if that does turn out to be the case, then Saintliness will have an added edge as she breaks from the rail and makes her stakes debut in the Affectionately.

Unbeaten after four starts, Saintliness returned from an extended layoff last month to win an optional claimer with third-level allowance conditions, and need only maintain that level to make it 5 for 5. Her main early rival, Our Rite of Spring, has been the pace-call leader in her last five starts, but drew the extreme outside.

Killenaule got a break when the Count Fleet was redrawn. Originally slated for post 8, he drew post 4 this time. Perhaps just as important, he has had an extra week of rest since running a new top Beyer finishing third in the Remsen. He will have to catch Scrappy T, who set the pace and held gamely against Tani Maru when they met on a closers' track here Dec. 15.

Naughty New Yorker took the worst of the redraw by far, going from post 1 originally to the far outside a week later. He won the Damon Runyon with a sweeping wide move, but who can remember the last time such a move worked around here?