11/27/2006 12:00AM

Inner track in play now till spring

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Before there was Polytrack or Cushion Track, there was the inner track.

While not considered as revolutionary as the aforementioned surfaces in terms of being kinder on horses, Aqueduct's inner track, which first opened in 1975, is designed to withstand the harsh winter weather that often encumbers these parts. Naturally, Wednesday's forecast calls for a high of 62 degrees.

Management has not definitively said when racing will return to the main track, though the two most likely dates are March 28 or Aprilo4. For the second year in a row, the Gotham Stakes, scheduled for March 10, will be run at 1 1/16 miles on the inner track. It serves as a prep for the Wood Memorial, run on the main track April 7.

Due to its one-mile configuration, one-turn races on the inner are limited in distance to six furlongs. Most two-turn races are at one mile and 70 yards or 1 1/16 miles. There are turf races carded for Wednesday and Thursday.

While many high-profile outfits head south for the winter, trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Richard Dutrow Jr., and Rick Violette will each be leaving as many as 40 horses in New York. Gary Contessa dominated the standings last winter and figures to do so again this winter.

Newcomers include Tim Ritvo, John Ward, Tony Wilson, and Paula Bacon. New Jersey-based trainers Jason Servis, Ben Perkins Jr., and Juan Serey will also be well represented.

The jockey colony will be very strong. Eibar Coa, who won 104 races last winter, will have plenty of competition for the riding title. Ramon Dominguez won 100 races last year but did not start until after Christmas. He rides five on Wednesday.

Hall of Fame riders Kent Desormeaux and Mike Smith will winter in New York along with Shaun Bridgmohan, Jose Santos, Mike Luzzi, Abel Castellano, Fernando Jara, and C.C. Lopez, as well as a host of apprentice riders, led by Angel Rodriguez.

The feature Wednesday is a third-level allowance race at a mile and 70 yards. Liquor Cabinet, part of a Dutrow-trained entry along with Mr. Whitestone, has not been out since April 1, but won two allowance races and finished second in the Stymie over the inner track last year. Monopoly Pricing, absent since May, is 4 for 5 over the inner track and fired a bullet four-furlong work over the surface on Nov. 19.