12/01/2003 12:00AM

Inner oval begins 14-week run


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Horse vans wheeled around the Belmont Park backstretch Monday morning like holiday shoppers in the mall on Black Friday, most picking up stock bound for south Florida. By midafternoon, the winds picked up and the mercury plummeted en route to 30-degree temperatures.

In case you need one more clue winter is approaching, Aqueduct's inner track opens on Wednesday. For the next 14 weeks - 68 cards and approximately 612 races - New York racing will be conducted over the winterized inner oval, which means a steady diet of six-furlong and mile and 70-yard races to handicap.

New York Racing Association officials hope Mother Nature is kinder than she was last winter, when wicked weather forced the cancellation of part or all of 11 cards and delayed the opening of the main track for nine days.

NYRA is attempting two experiments in hopes of increasing field size. First, purse money will be distributed to all starters in a race, as 1 percent has been taken from third-and fourth-place money to be distributed equally among the remaining starters. Second, the bottom-level claiming price has been dropped to $7,500, which could attract added runners from the mid-Atlantic region, Finger Lakes, and Suffolk Downs.

New faces include Kathleen DeMasi, former John Kimmel assistant Vinnie DeMalo, former D. Wayne Lukas assistant Mike Maker, and Howard Wolfendale. Kiaran McLaughlin, who now runs a public stable, will have a sizeable outfit here this winter, as will trainers Todd Pletcher and Rick Violette.

Javier Castellano and Gary Contessa will be hard-pressed to repeat their respective riding and training titles from a year ago. Castellano faces increased competition from journeyman Norberto Arroyo, Shaun Bridgmohan, Jorge Chavez, and Richard Migliore, as well as a bevy of apprentice riders.

Contessa, who has won the last two inner-track meets, will miss the first week of this year's meet as he serves out a suspension. His horses will run in assistant Frank Amonte's name during opening week.

Trainer Richard Dutrow, who won 26 races over the inner track last winter, is likely to get off to a strong start Wednesday with six runners entered, including She's Zealous, who drops from stakes company into a second-level allowance race at six furlongs.

Bluegrass Belle, trained by Violette, could upset She's Zealous. A daughter of Unbridled's Song, Bluegrass Belle is coming off a solid entry-level allowance win on Nov. 6 and shows a bullet work for this.