12/02/2002 1:00AM

It's time for inner visions


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The holiday shopping season may have gotten off to a late start, but winter arrives early for horseplayers on Wednesday with the opening of Aqueduct's inner track.

The one-mile, winterized oval - featuring the longest stretch of the four New York Racing Association dirt tracks - is where racing will be conducted for the next 3 1/2 months. It means a steady diet of six-furlong sprints and route races at 1 1/16 miles and at a mile and 70 yards around two turns.

While a lot of the big-name outfits get ready for the winter in south Florida, many New Jersey-based outfits such as Deborah Bodner, Buddy Carlesimo, Jim Ryerson, Jason Servis, and Willard Thompson settle into New York.

Although the jockey colony figures to lose stars such as Jerry Bailey, Jorge Chavez, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez by month's end, the race for leading rider this winter should be interesting. Shaun Bridgmohan, Javier Castellano, Richard Migliore, and Norberto Arroyo Jr. figure to have big meets, as does apprentice John McKee, who will make his New York debut on Wednesday. McKee comes in from Churchill Downs, where he won 27 races, eclipsing Steve Cauthen's record of 24 for an apprentice, set in 1976.

The opening of the inner track also signals a change for simulcast players who wager on Aqueduct. Wagering on Aqueduct's races from simulcast outlets will close when the first horse enters the gate. On-track patrons can still wager until the gates open.

One of the big events for the winter is the Grade 3 Ladies Handicap on Dec. 21. Wednesday's feature, a classified allowance for fillies and mares at nine furlongs, could produce a starter or two for that $100,000 race.

If speed is as good as it usually is on the inner track, With Ability could be hard to handle in the allowance feature. Not only is she the class of the field, but she could be the controlling speed under Aaron Gryder. With Ability scored a 9 1/2-length allowance win over the inner track in February.

Miss Splash also had success over the inner track last winter and could find herself stalking With Ability early on. Her trainer, Allen Iwinski, figures to do well here this winter.

New Real Deal, who will run on Lasix for the first time, and Forest Princess, who won a stakes the last time she ran on dirt, are also contenders.

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