03/13/2007 12:00AM

New Yorkers putting on sorry show of late

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NEW YORK - There are signs of hope that the long winter at Aqueduct is finally rounding the stretch turn. First post moved back from 12:30 to 1 p.m. last Wednesday, and Saturday's Gotham Stakes was a race someone outside of New York might actually care about. In three weeks the main track at Aqueduct will be ready to open for racing, and it's on to Belmont five weeks after that.

It would be premature to start dancing around a maypole, though, because in some ways March is the cruelest of the 12 months of New York racing. The local population of winter warriors is raced out and depleted from three months of inner-track racing, and the snowbirds won't start returning from Florida for another month. There is still plenty of time for races such as Wednesday's finale at Aqueduct and cards like Thursday's, low points of a winter where it has seemed that the bottom has fallen out of New York racing.

While the ebb and flow of field size and quality is an annual cycle, something has gone further awry this year. After several seasons in which winter racing had seemed to be improving, with more quality stables leaving a division up north and new outfits shipping in for the winter, it feels as if there was a secret memo sent out last November advising horsemen that this would be the winter of the statebred maiden claimer.

Such races can be entertaining and challenging, when the fields are full and the competitors have some ability, but when both the quantity and quality are gone they are simply ugly. Wednesday's finale drew just seven New York-bred maiden fillies wearing $15,000 price tags. The winner, Cagey Girl, was the logical favorite and perhaps even an overlay at $5.20, especially after she won by - this is not a typo - 27 3/4 lengths, a mere 3 1/4 lengths less than Secretariat's historic margin of victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Before you rush out to shop for a price on Cagey Girl in the Kentucky Oaks future book, however, please note that she earned a winning Beyer Speed Figure of 57 while covering a mile and 70 yards in 1:45.82.

It was a lengthy battle for the runner-up spot nearly 28 lengths later. At the stretch call, third choice Expect Drama appeared to have it wrapped up, as it was 10 lengths back to 22-1 Chamber Music in third, but Expect Drama managed to squander that entire lead in the final furlong and Chamber Music got up to complete a $72.50 exacta. In doing so, she earned a Beyer of 10 (ten), surely the lowest figure ever earned for finishing second in a race at a New York Racing Association track. Expect Drama may have set a similar standard receiving a 7 for holding third. Beyer Figures do not venture into negative territory, so the balance of the strung-out field - Personal Pretty (beaten 43 3/4 lengths), Angel Beach (beaten 56), Sumnnonymoshoss (beaten 102) and Rosemary's Garden (mercifully eased) - all received 0's.

The next day, the afternoon's entertainment consisted of nine races, six of them for statebreds and/or maiden claimers, with field sizes of 7, 6, 6, 4, 4, 7, 7, 6 and 7 - a grand total of 54 runners, 14 of who ran Beyers lower than 30. These dismal contests were the most competitive Aqueduct could muster despite a condition book that keeps plumbing new depths, most recently adding $5,000 open claiming races and reinstating restricted claiming races for statebreds.

Every reasonable person understands that a 12-month racing calendar will have its thin days and that Aqueduct in March cannot be Saratoga. Modest horses and outfits need a chance to win during off-peak seasons, but this sort of racing goes far beyond modesty. New York simply should not be putting on races where only one horse has even a flicker of ability and where it can round up only three capable of running a Beyer in excess of 0.

There is plenty of blame to go around in a state that has willfully bankrupted the tracks and forced their executives to devote their time to franchise bids and court appearances instead of attending to the product and the customers. There is also a larger, industry-wide issue of the unbridled growth of politically popular state breeding programs, which are churning out an increasing number of questionably bred animals for a diminishing number of racing opportunities. These growing populations of animals with little ability become the easy answer to filling racecards, and the result is something that seems less like horse racing than a subsidy program for matings that perhaps should never have been undertaken at all.

Sometimes it seems that the only part of New York racing that is truly growing is the number of very bad races among very slow horses.