04/16/2003 11:00PM

Speed rules even more than usual at Big A


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Ask horseplayers to name dirt surfaces that favor early speed and it's a good bet the most common responses will be tracks like Keeneland, Gulfstream Park, Turf Paradise, or the inner track at Aqueduct.

But judging from the results at the spring meet, Aqueduct's main track is right up there with the leaders when it comes to the "treadmill effect."

Indeed, horses who haven't been right up with the leaders have performed miserably, and those with positional speed have ridden a virtual conveyor belt to the winners' circle ever since the reopening of the main track on March 21, which was pushed back nine days due to persistent winter weather.

That speed rules shouldn't come as any big surprise to seasoned players, the majority of whom have long since understood the importance of early speed. What has been amazing, however, has been the extent of early speed's dominance through the first 17 racing days on the main track, March 21 through Wood Memorial Day, April 12.

For the purposes of this column, winning running styles are categorized as follows:

Early - The winner either led or was second and within one length of the lead at the pace call, which is the half-mile call at six and seven furlongs, and the six-furlong call for races at one mile and 1 1/8 miles.

Stalk - The winner raced within two lengths of the lead at the pace call.

Rally - The winner was more than two lengths behind at the pace call.

Six furlongs

There were 52 races at the distance, and 33 (63 percent) winners fell into the early category, including the last 13 in a row culminating with Threat of Victory in last Saturday's second race. Stalkers won 11 races (21 percent), and late ralliers won just eight races (15 percent).

Seven furlongs

There were 36 races at the distance, and they were a virtual mirror image of what happened at six furlongs. Early horses won 23 races (64 percent), and the last 20 winners were first, second, or third at the pace call, which at seven furlongs occurs midway on the far turn. Stalkers won eight races (22 percent), followed by late ralliers who won five times (14 percent).

One mile

Speed has even more impressive stats in the one-turn races out of the chute. Of those 37 races, early runners won 26 (70 percent), and 21 of those were on the lead. Stalkers won six times (16 percent), and late ralliers accounted for five wins (14 percent).

1 1/8 miles

Speed still did very well in the 28 two-turn routes, though not quite as well as in the shorter races. Early runners won 16 times (57 percent), followed by nine stalkers (32 percent) and just three ralliers (11 percent). Looked at another way, however, 27 of 28 winners were either one-two-three at the pace call or within two lengths of the lead. The lone exception was Acres ($51.50), a deep closer who erased a six-length deficit, rallying from next to last at the pace call in last Saturday's third race.

A recap of the most speed-favoring days:

March 22 - A 10-race card on a drying-out track that produced seven front-running winners and two others who were within a half-length of the lead at the pace call.

March 27 - Eight of the day's nine winners either led or were head-and-head for the lead at the pace call.

April 12 - With one exception on the 10-race Wood card, all winners either led or raced up close to the pace in the early going, including Wood winner Empire Maker.

Favorites continue to steamroll the opposition, batting .401 (63-157) through Wood Day. Several apparent mismatches have awakened the bridgejumpers from their winter slumber.

* Bonay looked strong enough in a five-horse allowance to attract $279,526 in show bets in the fifth race April 3, and she was ridden out to an easy score at 15 cents to $1.

* The 1-2 Empire Maker created a minus pool in the Wood after taking $335,154 in show bets.

* A race later, odds-on Congaree created another minus pool, with $103,728 of $128,859 bet on the multiple Grade 1 winner to show.

* Tumble Me Right looked so good compared to five others in a maiden special weight sprint that she attracted the staggering total of $623,610 in the show pool in Wednesday's second race. The 3-year-old filly lost a photo for the win, but show bettors never had an anxious moment.

None of this should make anyone think that a 5 percent return on "can't-miss" show bets is a better way to invest than mutual funds, stocks, or certificates of deposit. Let's not forget about entrymates Late Carson and Ceviche, who finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the fifth race on April 4 and turned $82,858 in show bets into worthless confetti.