Updated on 09/16/2011 9:51AM

Winter a season like no other


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Winter racing presents some unusual problems to most participants, as starter Bob Duncan said the other day.

The inner course at Aqueduct, built to deal with the effects of severe weather, has limited starting points because of its size. One of the points lost is for races at seven furlongs. As a consequence, traffic is particularly heavy at six furlongs, and Duncan noted there is a tendency for horses with little or no experience, who are drawn on the inside, to be hesitant at the break.

It is a natural reaction for a green horse to duck away and try to put some space between himself and the horse closest to him. Some give the impression they want to turn left and return to the paddock.

Another special facet of winter racing on the inner course is related to its bluestone base, Duncan says.

"Despite the super effort of track superintendent, Jerry Porcelli, and his crew to get the right amount of moisture in the track," Duncan said, "in low temperatures there is a tendency for the cushion to develop a freeze-dried, very powdery consistency. The cushion doesn't adhere to the base, and horses have a tendency to slip."

To give the horses some assistance, Duncan's crew at Aqueduct uses a starting bar. Placed in the track behind the gate, the bar functions like starting blocks at a track meet. Ideally, the bar is six inches behind the hind feet, but horses come in all sizes and shapes, and Duncan concludes the benefit is minimal.

Duncan, whose father trained horses, joined the New York gate crew in 1967 and served as an assistant starter under George Cassidy and Frank Calvarese until he was appointed head starter 10 years ago. He has perspective, and it is interesting that he thinks horses, on the whole, are better starters today than ever before.

"Trainers have come to appreciate the importance of a good start," he said. "There is much more schooling now than ever before. Even in the bad weather months the schooling continues, though not at the same level as in good-weather periods.

The New York Racing Association, said Duncan, "provides excellent foul-weather gear for our crew, and we're ready in any conditions."

Racetracks become global village

The appeal of international racing is evident in the proliferation events and festivals such as the Breeders' Cup, the Dubai World Cup, the Arc de Triomphe, the Japan Cup, the Hong Kong Festival, the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and many others.

To make the most of this development, the racing authorities of the world's leading jurisdictions formed the International Classification Committee to organize data that is accurate and uniform. Mike Lakow, racing secretary at the NYRA tracks, recently returned from the ICC meeting in Paris, impressed with the progress being made.

"Next week the ICC will release its world classifications, ranking the world's leading horses in every category, regardless of the country they represent," Lakow said. "The Internet has been a key factor in speeding the organization of international racing. I can download information on the Internet about any horse in the world who may be coming to New York for a race."

Wetherby's, which gathers information and administers English racing, has the same role on a global scale for the ICC.