10/27/2003 12:00AM

Thanksgiving highlights fall meet

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Fans will notice some unplanned changes to the track when Aqueduct opens its doors on Wednesday for its 44-day fall meet.

The New York Racing Association during the summer halted construction on a casino for 4,500 video lottery terminals in its grandstand because of a federal investigation of NYRA officials connected to the convictions of 19 mutuel tellers for income tax evasion and money laundering.

Because construction was already under way, some areas of the track will not be accessible. The most significant changes are the closure of the second floor of the grandstand and the backyard area.

None of the changes will affect the racing program at Aqueduct, which is highlighted by the HolidayFest, which features five graded races during Thanksgiving weekend. The main event is the Grade 1, $350,000 Cigar Mile, which has been won by several outstanding horses, including Cigar, Left Bank, and Congaree, who won the race last year and is expected to defend his title. Also run on the Cigar Mile card are a pair of Grade 2 races for 2-year-olds, the $200,000 Remsen and $200,000 Demoiselle. The Thanksgiving Day feature is the $100,000 Fall Highweight for sprinters.

A total of 29 stakes, worth $3.4 million, will be run during the meet.

The return to Aqueduct means 1 1/8-mile races on the main track become true routes and will be run around two turns. At Belmont Park, races at that distance are run at one turn out of a chute, with a lengthy run down the backside. Inside posts are generally preferred in Aqueduct's 1 1/8-mile races because of the short run into the first turn.

Racing switches to Aqueduct's one-mile inner track the first week of December.

The opening-day feature is the Grade 3, $100,000 Discovery Handicap for 3-year-olds. The 1 1/8-mile Discovery drew a strong field of 11.

The 120-pound highweight is During, who won the Jerome Handicap at Belmont Park on Sept. 13 for owner James McIngvale and trainer Bob Baffert. The Jerome was run around one turn, but During has already proven himself around two turns in top company by winning the Grade 2 Swaps over Ten Most Wanted, one of the top 3-year-olds in the country.

During has been in New York since the summer and has been cared for by trainer John Terranova and his wife and assistant, Tonja.

"I'm happy that [Baffert] and Mr. McIngvale have let us keep him here," Tonja Terranova said. "I think this race is a nice spot for him, and I'm confident he can get the job done. He has trained tremendously since the Jerome. He has natural speed to be where the rider wants him to be."

During, who figures to be on or near the early lead in a race with a lot of speed, drew post 2 and Jose Santos.

Congrats won an allowance over older horses at Belmont on Oct. 2 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 104. Trainer Shug McGaughey believes Congrats has a bright future.

"I think his future is in front of him, although I would like to get it done with him on Wednesday," McGaughey said. "His last race was another step up against older horses, and I think he got a lot out of it to get to this spot."

Trainer Todd Pletcher, fresh off winning the Belmont fall training title, has two top contenders in Newfoundland and Colita, who are not coupled in the wagering.

First post for the nine-race opener is 12:30 p.m.