02/23/2006 1:00AM

New races, new wrinkles on inner track


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The inner track opened for business on Nov. 30, and as soon as the early daily double of Flower Flag and Crooked Woman was official, it was clear that winter racing at Aqueduct would never be the same. There was nothing remarkable about a $47.40 daily double, except that no one, at least no one in New York, had ever seen anything quite like it.

Because she is just a claiming filly, Flower Flag's time was nothing remarkable, and yet it was a track record. How so? It was the first race at 5 1/2 furlongs to have ever been run on the inner track. (Her time of 1:05.17 remained the standard for three days.)

A race later, Crooked Woman became the first horse on the NYRA circuit to win a maiden claimer restricted to New York-breds, wiring a $25,000 claimer by five lengths and getting trainer Gary Contessa's winter off to a flying start.

The changes were just the latest wrinkles added to the condition book by P.J. Campo, who took over as racing secretary last July and promptly broke with tradition by introducing turf sprints at Saratoga.

To be sure, statebred maiden claimers are not aesthetic masterpieces, but that is not the point.

"It keeps owners interested, and it keeps more people in the game," said Campo. "And it hasn't hurt the special weight races - the maiden special always goes."

It didn't take handicappers long to figure out what to look for. Through racing of Presidents Day weekend, favorites had won 7 of 21 (33 percent) of the statebred maiden claimers, right around the universal average; another seven were won by horses in an odds range of 4-1 to 8-1, the kind of midpriced winner that horseplayers can never get enough of. It matters not that their past-performance lines are downright ugly, because a 6-1 winner of a statebred claimer pays as much as a 6-1 winner of a Breeders' Cup race.

The sample is small, but logic suggests the handicapping is basically the same as with maiden claimers for open company. The order of preference is a) horses dropping from special weights who have shown anything - anything at all - at the higher level; b) those who finished second (or a close third) in their first try for a claiming tag; and c) in the absence of those profiles, a first-time starter with the requisite trainer, workouts, and pedigree. The Stanley Hough-trained Winter Icecapade ($14.80) has been the only winning firster so far, and it stands to reason they will be few and far between, keeping in mind that the $16,000 purse is far less than the $41,000 that the special weights run for.

Be that as it may, a $9,600 winner's share can still seem like winning the Kentucky Derby to those involved in the game on a small scale.

As for the races at 5 1/2 furlongs, speed rules. Duh.

Of the first 28 races at the new distance, 15 (54 percent) were won by the leader at the pace call, and 23 (82 percent) of the winners were running either one-two-three or within two lengths of the lead at that point.

"It just gives a different look," Campo said of the shorter sprints.

"I get different responses from gamblers whether they like them or not."

"P.J. Campo should be paid a debt of gratitude by all the owners and horsemen," said Contessa, who is running away with another winter meet title. "I think it's outstanding what he's done, and it's made for good betting. We all have a horse or two that doesn't breathe so good, and it gives them a better shot to win."

Other new conditions instituted this winter are optional claiming races for statebreds, starter handicaps for statebreds, claiming races for nonwinners of three races, and the latest little curveball, claiming races for nonwinners in a specified period of time, typically six months. That condition has been a longtime staple at minor tracks.

"The first one of those drew nine horses right off the bat," Campo noted. "It gives claimers a shot to be competitive and pick up a decent pot."

Contessa said: "The starter handicaps have been amazing. It gives you a new angle to claim a horse. You can claim a horse for $50,000 now, and if it can't win for $75,000, you can run him back in starters. It has opened up the claiming game, and made it that much more interesting."

Everyone around here will be interested to see what comes next.