01/20/2005 12:00AM

Noteworthy inner-track trends at Big A


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - As of Thursday afternoon, weather handicappers were predicting a potentially major snowfall for the New York area this weekend - anywhere from three inches to nearly a foot, depending on which forecast you heard. So it's easy to forget that for Aqueduct's first 10 racing days of 2005, the average temperature, according to the official charts, was a relatively balmy 48 degrees, including readings of 60 degrees on New Year's Day and 62 a week ago Thursday.

Unpredictable weather is par for the course during the winter, and at this time of year horseplayers should be particularly attuned to whether the weather is affecting the track.

Aqueduct's inner track is an engineering marvel that can withstand some of the harshest conditions Old Man Winter can dish out. In sharp contrast to the adjacent main track's 10-inch base of clay, silt, and sand, the inner track is "winterized" with a limestone screening base that drains quickly and resists freezing, with a thin top layer of clay, silt, and sand.

The surface is terrific for normal conditions from December through early March, but repeated fluctuations above and below freezing can help to create lane or running-style biases. So too can periods of unseasonably warm and wet weather, such as the one local horseplayers just experienced, when the inner track was labeled something other than fast for all or part of nine straight racing programs from Jan. 5-15 - including a sloppy Saturday card that was scrapped after three races due to deteriorating track conditions.

With the winter meet about halfway done, this seems like an opportune time to review some of the most noteworthy track conditions from the first half. When horses with a last-race line from these days race back, check to see if they were with or against the grain of a prevailing bias.

Dec. 1 - Opening day canceled due to high winds. Welcome to winter at The Big A.

Dec. 8 - After a week of level playing fields, this was the first of several speed-friendly afternoons. Speed and stalking types won every race except for the last, in which the horses running one-two-three in the early going were 33-1, 19-1, and 8-1. Horses who closed some ground on this day and then came back to win their next starts included Golden Derek, Hottothetouch, High Ratings, Pitchacurve, Ide Got Style, Seeking Redemption, and Work With Me.

Dec. 15 - The best day of the winter so far for late-rallying winners going two turns. None of the five route winners was closer than fourth at the first call, and three came from dead last, including $41.80 upsetter J.B.'s Annie. The 3-year-old gelding Scrappy T set a pressured pace against the grain of the track and held stubbornly to be beaten a neck by Tani Maru in a preliminary allowance route; he turned the tables in last Saturday's rescheduled Count Fleet Stakes, leading past every pole at 11-1.

Dec. 18, 19 - This was the final weekend before the nine-day holiday hiatus, and the rail was golden. There were six wire-to-wire winners on the inside Dec. 18, a day when all winners hugged the rail on the turns, with the exception of Pavo, who turned back from the 1 1/8-mile Remsen to a restricted sprint stakes and rallied from the two-path to overtake duelers Benjamin Baby and Lieutenant Danz.

The rail was just as strong Dec. 19. Seven winners were on the fence around the turns, and the two exceptions were positioned in the two-path, including odds-on Song of the Sword, who ran down Alphabetical, the inside speed, at 22-1, who easily beat the rest.

Dec. 30 - The chart comment for every single winner on the program contained either the words "inside," "rail," or both.

Jan. 2 - All six sprint races were won by early speed, but reserve judgment for now as to whether this was the result of a bias, or merely sheer coincidence. Five of the speed winners went off as the favorite or second choice, including two at odds-on, and the only price horse in the group was the 11-1 Tip City, who shook loose around the turn through pedestrian fractions.

Jan. 6-14 - This biased stretch, in all likelihood triggered by persistent rain and a packed-down track, may come to be known as the Gold Rail Period. Inside speed enjoyed a tremendous advantage, and when these horses were beaten, it was usually by a rail-skimming late mover. The performance of any horse who made up ground while racing wide should be held in high regard. Conversely, view with skepticism the parade of bias-aided winners by lopsided margins when they race back.