02/27/2003 12:00AM

Winter could postpone main track


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - You wouldn't know from looking, because it is still covered in layers of ice and snow, but Aqueduct's main track is scheduled to reopen on March 12, which is just one week from next Wednesday.

The operative word is "scheduled," because even though we are supposedly in winter's homestretch, Mother Nature has been loose on the lead around here for quite some time and shows no signs of quitting. At this writing the infield lakes remain suitable for an ice-skating exhibition by Sarah Hughes, and another storm with the potential to dump a half-foot of snow was expected to hit the New York area late Thursday night and into early Friday. The long-range forecast called for yet another round of wintry-mix precipitation Sunday.

"Everything is frozen solid," said NYRA track superintendent Jerry Porcelli, as he watched a lone tractor push some ice around on the main track. "We're trying to scrape some ice off now, so we can get some melting going if we ever get some sun."

The return to the main track is annually regarded as the unofficial first day of spring by New York horseplayers. But right now it looks as though we're going to be left out in the cold a while longer.

"1996 was pretty bad in terms of snow, but this is the coldest winter I can remember," Porcelli said. "We need a good week of defrosted weather to get into the cushion, and then you still have to worry about the base being frozen. I'm looking at the 10-day forecast, and I don't even see any temperate weather yet - and 43 degrees is the normal high for this time of the year. With all the snow we pushed off the inner track and onto the main track, the cushion is out of place in some spots. We have to get in there to work it, but we just can't do that unless it's defrosted."

A delay in opening the main track means a delay in the return of chute racing - an aspect of the game that is sorely lacking on the inner track, where, because of its one-mile configuration, the only sprint distance is six furlongs, and the next distance beyond that is a two-turn route. Of course, the main track being in hibernation could throw a monkey-wrench in the plans of any 3-year-old being targeted for the one-mile Gotham two weeks from Sunday. It's beginning to look as though the traditional prep for the Wood Memorial may be run around two turns at one mile and 70 yards this year.

"We're going to go real cautious with this thing," Porcelli said. "We don't want to go to the main track too soon, and then have to go back on the inner as has happened before. There have been a couple of years when we just about made the Wood."

Captain Red shows speed kills

The inner track, after a brief thaw and deluge of rain last weekend, was back to its familiar frozen state by Wednesday, and Captain Red took advantage of the prevailing conditions to run six furlongs in 1:07.93, shattering a 6-year-old track record.

Captain Red is a fine illustration of how early speed and sharp form often supersede the nebulous concept of class in winter-time dashes. Always a bullet from the gate, Captain Red has been up and down throughout his 40-race career. He finished out of the money for a $35,000 claiming tag as recently as last October.

A freshening from Nov. 28 to Jan. 16 served him well, though, and after recording career-best Beyer Speed Figures of 107 and 104 to begin his current form cycle, Captain Red moved forward again Wednesday, beating Affirmed Success, Say Florida Sandy (a $2 million earner), and Esteemed Friend, graded stakes winners all.

This is an example of what can happen when a horse with early speed also happens to like the inner track. Captain Red is now 4-1-0 from six such races.

Speed and the rail have been a lethal combination all winter. In routes, a large sample of horses breaking from post 1 are winning at a 20 percent clip (45 for 222). In sprints, posts 1 through 5 have been the five best winner-producing spots after the first 255 races; horses breaking from posts 10 through 12 are a combined 6 for 158, a meager 3.7 percent hit rate.