12/04/2007 12:00AM

Tips for winter racing

EmailThis is the time of year when many stables are giving their stock a short breather before the opening of Santa Anita in Southern California on Dec. 26 and Gulfstream Park in Florida on Jan. 3.

Generally speaking, this also can be a good time for horseplayers to take a bit of a break, unless you have been waiting anxiously for some Breeders' Cup horses to bet on or against. Or, perhaps you annually gear up for one of the handful of winter race meets that have begun to pick up momentum. It is even possible that active play through December into the new year will involve a slightly easier game than we usually encounter at the major meets.

For instance, at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, the new synthetic Tapeta track is attracting larger fields than we saw at Bay Meadows and even bigger fields than Hollywood Park in Southern California. This boost in field size is creating added value on preferred plays, while to this subjective eye, the synthetic surface also seems to be playing more consistently than anything seen to date on the three Southern California synthetic tracks.

Golden Gate front-runners are having no difficulty showing their customary speed, while stalkers and midpack closers also are winning their fair share of races. Even deep closers seem to be able to take advantage of hot pace scenarios.

Meanwhile, Southern Cal racing fans can only guess what kind of pace preference will be on display when they come out to Hollywood Park for the balance of the 2007 meet. While the track played fair during the first few weeks, there have been several one-dimensional speed days and days when the overall pattern of racing has been inscrutable.

In New York, the Aqueduct winter meet now in gear with its winterized inner dirt racing surface traditionally accents early speed and inner post positions. Yet, this trend can be reversed when temperatures in the region rise solidly above freezing. In the meantime, horses forced to break from outside posts in two-turn races tend to be at a significant disadvantage, unless they can outbreak the field, or work out a difficult trip from well back in the pack.

At the winter Aqueduct meet, it also is true that a handful of jockeys tend to collectively win a high percentage of races. This year, Eibar Coa, Ramon Dominguez, Alan Garcia, and New York newcomer Rajiv Maragh seem to have a solid feel for the tight-turning inner dirt track. The same seems to be true for familiar trainers Anthony Dutrow and Gary Contessa, plus relative newcomer David Jacobson. All seem loaded for the cold weather ahead.

At Turfway Park in Kentucky, where Polytrack has been in use for more than two years, locally based horseplayers still express frustration over the way the game has been radically altered. Where Turfway used to be a speed-favoring surface, it has become a track that accents stretch-running form and horses with turf breeding and/or stamina-building races and workouts.

For instance, during Turfway's first full week of racing through Dec. 2, very few horses were able to win on the lead at any distance. While this may change when the winter freeze sets in, handicappers should do well accenting horses turning back in distance as well as those with prior good Polytrack form. A wide assortment of low profile jockeys also are likely to do well this season, now that Rafael Bejarano and Julien Leparoux have shipped out to Southern California.

At the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which opened Thanksgiving Day and will continue through March 2008, there will be plenty of good racing after the first of the year when the track's abundant 3-year-olds begin to advance towards the Louisiana Derby. In the meantime, players might find it fruitful to focus on the track's turf racing program, with special emphasis on horses that have won or run strongly over the Fair Grounds grass course.

Because this grass course has deeper roots than most American turf courses, horses with proven Fair Grounds turf form deserve the benefit of doubt when meeting Fair Grounds newcomers. As for the main track, I usually let form settle through the first few weeks. Of course, horses trained by high-percentage winners Tom Amoss, Neil Howard, Steve Asmussen, Cody Autrey, and Wayne Catalano merit close inspection throughout the season.

Tampa Bay Downs on the west coast of Florida also is set to begin its increasingly important winter meet on Dec. 8. After decades of operating as a low-profile track in the shadow cast by Gulfstream Park in south Florida, Tampa is in fact becoming a favored testing ground for top class 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown chase. As many surely remember, eventual Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense made his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby, winning a close battle with the Todd Pletcher-trained Any Given Saturday, who later would win three other graded stakes.

Beyond its strong 3-year-old program, Tampa Bay Downs also has gained purse power through a new card room and has been held in high regard by knowledgeable trainers who have come there to race medium grade horses at the claiming and allowance level. Fact is, due to its deep, stamina-building main track, which tends to play fair and square, many Tampa-based horses tend to outrun their previous performance levels when they ship elsewhere in the spring.

Otherwise, players who focus on the current Tampa Bay meet can expect to find large fields for most races on dirt and turf, while absentees that have run well in prior seasons can pay generous prices for outfits that annually do well here. Among the most prominent trainers who fit that bill are Gerald and Dale Bennett, Lynn Scace, Barbara McBride, Kirk Ziadie, Jane Cibelli, and Ron Allen Sr.