11/28/2005 1:00AM

Inner track meet two weeks longer

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Spite the Devil (11), here winning the Empire Classic, will face a solid field in the opening-day Gander.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Groundhog Day is still two months away, but followers of New York racing won't need Punxsutawney Phil to let them know that this will be an extended winter.

Though the calendar still says November, Aqueduct's inner track opens for business on Wednesday. And, at the behest of track superintendent John Passero, the inner track meet has been lengthened by two weeks, meaning the main track is not scheduled to open until March 29.

Passero, who came to New York from Maryland last year, simply believes the weather is too volatile in mid-March to open the main track, which is not as equipped to handle the cold weather as is the inner track. Twice in the last three years, the opening of the main track was delayed because of the weather.

Several stakes races will be affected by the longer inner track meet, most notably the Gotham for 3-year-olds. Normally a one-turn mile on the main track, the Gotham will now be run at 1 1/16 miles around two turns on the inner. The New York Racing Association has yet to officially release the 2006 stakes schedule, though March 18 seems the most likely date for the Gotham, which serves as a prep for the Wood Memorial, likely to be run on April 8.

Several sprint stakes - including the Cicada, Distaff, Toboggan, and Broadway - that were run at seven furlongs on the main, will now be carded at six furlongs on the inner, racing secretary P.J. Campo said.

In an effort to encourage local horsemen to stay in New York, management has relaxed restrictions on the number of horses one trainer can keep on the grounds. Since the inception of the prerace security barn in May, there was a 36-horse limit. Before the detention barn, the limit was 40. This winter, there is no limit.

Thus, trainers such as Richard Dutrow Jr., Gary Contessa, and Bruce Levine will have upward of 60 horses on the grounds. Dutrow said he is leaving 75 in New York, while Contessa scrapped plans to open a division at Turfway and Levine canceled plans to keep horses in Maryland.

"Whatever my numbers were last winter," said Contessa, who led all trainers with 177 starters last winter, "I might double that number or at least run 50 percent more horses."

"It's going to help me out a lot, because I don't like racing in Florida," said Dutrow, who will have two barns at Belmont and one at Aqueduct. "I don't have to send a bunch down there now. Now I can at least relax here with them, and most of my clients are here."

Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Richard Schosberg will each have 40 horses based in New York this winter. The Maryland-based Robert Bailes, who enjoyed a solid 2004-05 inner track meeting with about a dozen runners, will have 18-24 head this winter. Kelly Breen (30), Tony Dutrow (20), Justin Nixon (30), and Jason Servis (30) will have a stronger presence in New York than in winters past.

The jockey colony will be strong, with journeymen Ramon Dominguez and Jose Santos expected to ride here full time by the end of December. Richard Migliore is due back from injury after Christmas to join regulars Norberto Arroyo Jr., Mike Luzzi, and Aaron Gryder.

Turf racing will continue as long as Mother Nature permits. Though there is no turf racing scheduled for Wednesday, when rain is forecast, one turf race is carded for Thursday.

The inner track means a steady diet of six-furlong and mile-and-70-yard races. The opening-day feature is the $65,000 Gander Stakes for New York-breds at a mile and 70 yards.

The Gander drew a very strong field of New York-bred stakes winners, including Empire Classic winner .

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens sends out both Win With Beck and Lord Langfuhr. Win With Beck is 3 for 3 over the inner track, while Lord Langfuhr makes his first start in 10 months. Lord Langfuhr, 3-2-0 from six inner track starts, will be running as a gelding for the first time