12/01/2014 12:19PM

Inner track opens for four-month run


OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Despite the thermometer reaching 60 degrees in these parts Monday, it’s beginning to look a lot like winter.

On Sunday and Monday, there was a bevy of horse vans lined up on the Belmont backstretch, loading horses to take south. The racing office has conceded to Mother Nature and will not card turf races beyond Thursday. Finally, in the biggest sign of all, Wednesday marks the opening of Aqueduct’s inner track.

For the next four months on this circuit, racing will be conducted on the one-mile inner track, with sprint races run primarily at six furlongs and two-turn races carded primarily at a mile and 70 yards to 1 1/16 miles.

Racing officials were hopeful of running turf races through this weekend, but with wet weather expected on and off this week, they did not take entries for turf on Friday. There are two turf races carded for both Wednesday and Thursday, but they are at the mercy of Mother Nature. During the 26-day fall meet from Oct. 29 through Sunday, Aqueduct ran 42 turf races and transferred 42 scheduled turf races to the dirt.

Racing on the inner track will be conducted through March 22. Following a six-day race week Dec. 10-15, there is a 10-day winter break from Dec. 16-25.

“The last two years, Aqueduct has averaged 7.06 starters per race,” said Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association’s senior vice president of racing operations. “We’re trying to take some steps to build up that starters-per-race. Certainly in the winter months on a dirt track, it’s very challenging.

“We’ll just see how it goes and play it by ear. If we need to go to eight races on weekdays, that might be an option,” Panza added. “It’s just important to keep field size up. We hope that we get a little bit better weather than we did last year. We’ve had some stables that have left a few more horses with us.”

Chad Brown, for example, said he will leave 36 in New York for the winter, 50 percent more than he did a year ago. Ken McPeek and Mike Maker also have more horses on the grounds.

While the majority of the winter stakes program is the same as in years past, many races have been moved on the calendar. The Interborough, a sprint for fillies and mares traditionally run on New Year’s Day, has been moved to Jan. 17. The Jimmy Winkfield, for 3-year-old male sprinters typically run on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is now scheduled for Feb. 28.

The stakes program for 3-year-olds remains the same, with the Jerome (Jan. 3), Withers (Feb. 7), and Gotham (March 7) all leading to the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial over the main track April 4. All four stakes offer qualifying points toward the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

NYRA has added the Jazil Stakes for 3-year-olds and up, to be run Jan. 19, moving the Evening Attire (Feb. 22) and Stymie (March 21) back a month. Two stakes eliminated were the Dearly Precious, a sprint for 3-year-old fillies that had averaged five starters since 2008, and the Kings Point for New York-breds.

NYRA is expected later this week to unveil details of its inaugural New York Claiming Championship Series, to be held March 21. It figures to be modeled after the popular Claiming Crown, which Gulfstream Park is holding this Saturday.

Wednesday’s feature is a $69,000, second-level allowance race for fillies and mares at a mile and 70 yards in which Lunar Surge looks like the one to beat.

Last winter, Lunar Surge won a maiden race and finished second to Belle Gallantey – now a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner – in two starts over the inner track. She is a closer, thus subject to pace, but Evening Show and Faith Hall look as though they prefer to do their running on the front end.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 2 Lunar Surge. Posted career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 85 in last start, but that race has come back weak, with horses going 6-0-1-0 in their next start. Click for more details. Mike Hogan

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After competing in eight consecutive stakes, America won a first-level allowance race by 6 3/4 lengths for celebrity chef and owner Bobby Flay and trainer Bill Mott last out. She raced near the front that day and may employ those tactics again after breaking from the rail under Irad Ortiz Jr., who is staying in New York this winter and is expected to vie with his brother, Jose, for leading rider.

DRF FORMULATOR FACT: No. 1 America. Trainer Bill Mott is 14-8-1-0 with a $4.72 ROI over the past five years with last-out winners in routes on the inner dirt track at Aqueduct. Click for more details. Mike Hogan