03/30/2010 11:00PM

Winter-raced runners, outside trips have edge


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Winter-weary handicappers used to playing the often inside-biased Aqueduct inner track should revert back to a different way of thinking when racing returns to Woodbine's Polytrack on Friday, where the outside has been the place to be.

That's not to say that you cannot win from along the inside on the quirky synthetic surface, but the track profile has had an outside theme in recent years.

Jockey Jim McAleney said even top trainers from Western Canada, who possess the mentality that saving ground is paramount, have deduced that the outside is preferred on Woodbine's Polytrack.

"I ride for a few really good trainers from Western Canada - Terry Jordan, Lorne Richards, and Stu Simon," McAleney said. "From racing on a bullring, they're used to saving ground, but even they've come to the conclusion that on this track, you're probably better off giving up the ground and getting to the outside when you have the opportunity. You can win on the rail, but if you have your choice, you're going to take to the outside."

McAleney, Woodbine's second-leading rider in 2008, said he has no qualms with the way that the Polytrack has played.

"As long as the track plays consistently one way, that's okay," McAleney said. "But if one day you can't win on the outside, and the next day you can't win on the inside, then it's not fair to the handicappers."

Another idiosyncrasy regarding the Polytrack is that pace is often meaningless in two-turn races, in which closers have repeatedly overcome slow fractions to prevail. Front-runners who set fractions of 24 and 48 seconds seem to have as good a chance of winning as those who establish splits of 25 and 50, an anomaly that McAleney has an explanation for.

"If you're setting a quicker early tempo, the horses in behind are using themselves to maintain that same tempo and are taking away from their own finish," McAleney said. "If you're setting a slow pace, everyone is sitting and saving as much horse as you are, and they have a better chance of closing."

The marathon Woodbine meet, which concludes Dec. 5, can be divided into three segments. The first, which runs through the end of April, consists of many shorter sprints, some for low-end Fort Erie-type runners who will move on when the Fort Erie meet commences May 1.

The meat and potatoes of the meet is from May through October when all of Woodbine's major races take place and turf racing is conducted.

Woodbine makes room for some Fort Erie runners in November and December, after that meet ends in late October. During this time, many low-level claiming races with large fields are carded. Horses routinely run back on short rest, sometimes successfully, and horseplayers have to make adjustments in order to stay ahead of the curve. For whatever reason, horses with well-spaced races don't necessarily thrive at this time of year.

Winter-raced horses merit serious consideration at the beginning of the Woodbine meet, although they don't have a decided advantage in the shorter dashes because the pace of these races is usually quicker than in longer sprints.

The most successful shippers here last April came from Fair Grounds, Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Penn National, and Philadelphia Park. Due to the slots-fueled purses, the quality of racing has been improving in Pennsylvania, so expect horses from Penn and Philly to continue to excel here this spring.

Shippers from Tampa and Aqueduct fared poorly last April. Tampa runners occasionally pop at a price, though, and trainer Mark Casse's presence at Tampa this past winter could lead to more productivity from such shippers here.

When sizing up the chances of the locally trained runners returning from a layoff, prefer those who raced into November of last year. These horses will not have lost a ton of fitness over the winter, assuming that they went back into training in mid-February and followed with at least three works in March.