01/06/2006 1:00AM

It's good to play Big A now


NEW YORK - The inner-track meeting at Aqueduct has long been perceived as the black hole of New York racing, a four-month stretch of tiny fields racing on an antifreeze-soaked bullring where nothing but inside speed can win and nothing important ever happens.

In fact, it is a very playable meeting, liked and even cherished by serious horseplayers who know the racing is fairer and better than the stereotype, and often brimming with wagering opportunities. That has been the case more than ever this year, thanks to mild weather, strong purses, and some imaginative tweaking of the condition book by the new racing secretary, P.J. Campo, and his staff.

Since the inner track opened Nov. 30, there have been generally big fields, frequent pick-six carryovers, and plenty of plausible boxcar winners. It has helped that there have been only three truly sloppy tracks, just one day lost to weather, and a nine-day holiday break freshened up man and beast alike. There have also, however, been more horses staying north before heading for the tropics or simply staying put. December saw more inner-track starters for such blue-chip outfits as Darley and the Phipps Stable than ever before, and appearances in overnight races by the likes of Harlington, the $1.8 million Unbridled-Serena's Song colt who could well be an important 4-year-old this season.

Not that the meet will ever be confused with Royal Ascot. Most of the available horses are New York-breds, maidens, and cheaper claimers than you'll ever see at Belmont or Saratoga. Watching the same conditions week after week, races of attrition where chronic losers finally escape a level where they have been getting drubbed all year, can indeed be depressing, but that's where Campo's innovations come in. They have included the following:

* Maiden-claiming races for statebreds. Previously, all New York-bred maidens raced at the same maiden special weight level. While fields were usually full, many consisted of two or three legitimate contenders and nine chronically overmatched throwouts. The maiden claiming level has created competitive races among the latter group, finally making winners of horses such as Quayle, wonderfully named (Deputy Commander-Oblivious T) but victory-challenged before winning one of these new races Dec. 7.

* Claiming races restricted to 4-year-olds. It used to be that the worst thing that could happen to a $15,000 to $25,000 3-year-old was to turn 4, when he lost the ability to run against colts of his own age and suddenly had to face grizzled veterans who were simply 5 to 10 lengths better at the same claiming price. Last Monday marked the debut of a race restricted to 4-year-old $14,000 claimers, and it drew a competitive field of 10.

* Supplemental nominations for stakes races. The Count Fleet Stakes Saturday drew 12 nominees at $65 apiece when it closed Dec. 17, and would have gone with a field of just six had that been the end of it. Instead, supplemental nominations were accepted at $650 at entry time and four other 3-year-olds who had not originally been named were entered, creating a far more bettable field of 10.

* More optional claiming conditions. The Dec. 14 card had four such races, where allowance fields that would have numbered 4, 4, 7, and 8 horses instead went with fields of 7, 6, 9, and 12, thanks to the presence of claiming horses that had already run through the allowance conditions of the races. An especially good idea was to open up the statebred N2x level to previous winners of the condition at a $30,000 claiming price, extending these horses' value and opportunities.

These changes may seem minor and technical, but the result has been both bigger fields and more interesting races. Regular bettors can get weary of seeing what amounts to the same race every two weeks, absent only last time's winner, but these new conditions have brought together familiar horses in new contexts, giving handicappers fresh matchups and angles to ponder.

There also is the money to consider. An N1x allowance race for older males on the inner track carries a $46,000 purse, the same as if it were on Whitney Day at Saratoga. The same race this weekend at Gulfstream was not only worth just $33,000, but also was a lot harder to win: The race drew three entrants already placed in graded stakes and three promising recent maiden winners who sold for $700,000 or more. Aqueduct can look awfully inviting by comparison.

If you're one of those people who usually tunes out Aqueduct during the five-month Grade 1 hiatus between the Cigar Mile and the Wood Memorial, the racing deserves a second look.