01/08/2007 12:00AM

Year after year, speed rules the inner

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Handicappers need to tread cautiously until more is known about the particular demands of Polytrack, Cushion Track, and Tapeta, but it's nice to be able to count on the good old inner dirt track at Aqueduct, where horses with early speed have been leaving their rivals in the limestone dust for more than 30 years.

The one-mile oval with a unique winterized base opened for a four-month winter meet on Nov. 29. Predictably, the opener was won wire to wire by Flushing Meadows, a drop-down with the best early speed in the field who still managed to slip by as the third choice at nearly 4-1. Despite myriad statistical studies proclaiming that betting early speed is the way to go, such horses continue to go off as overlays day in and day out.

All things being equal, horses with early speed have an inherent edge on the Big A's inner track, if only because they are saving valuable ground and momentum and running the shortest route from point A to point B around its hairpin turns. But on some days, the vagaries of the track's layout, composition, and Mother Nature combine in a perfect storm of events to make early speed virtually unbeatable, as was the case on several occasions in December prior to the Christmas break.

On Friday, Dec. 1, the surface was fast and harrowed for the first five races, then sealed and downgraded to good under showery conditions for the last four races. Early speed had a field day before and after the change: Seven winners set or contested the pace, and one other sat third in the garden spot before taking over at the pre-stretch call.

One of the strongest inside speed biases of the year occurred six days later, when seven winners led from start to finish and the two other winners were never more than a half-length from the front.

On Dec. 17, four of the day's five sprint races were won wire to wire, including Bishop Court Hill at 7-2 in the Gravesend Handicap. The lone exception was stalking-trip winner Mr. Tater, who ran down 16-1 pacesetter Cat's Lad in the final furlong of a restricted claimer.

Betting the speed, to quote a current TV ad campaign, can be "very, very, very rewarding" in cheap races, but it also pays dividends at the stakes level. In addition to Bishop Court Hill (who earlier in 2006 wired the Grade 1 Carter at 8-1), recent front-running stakes winners at Aqueduct include Accountforthegold ($10.60) in the Stuyvesant, Judy Soda ($8.20) in the Montauk, and Oprah Winney ($25.20) in a sloppy renewal of the Interborough on New Year's Day. Mike Smith explained afterward that trainer Rick Dutrow instructed him to come out of there with Oprah Winney "as if it was the All-American" Futurity for Quarter Horses.

Joe Colville in his thought-provoking 1996 collection, "Essays for the Horseplayer," wrote: "We want to play horses that come from behind. My suggestion, if you wish to curb your impulse to play come-from-behinders, is to designate the horse you feel will be leading at the first-quarter call. With practice, you will be able to predict the early leader almost 50 percent of the time. A warning: unless you are a good handicapper, you will find your designated front-runners outperforming your selections."

Looking at the field of eight 3-year-olds in Saturday's Count Fleet Stakes, all eight of them have run their best races when they either set the early pace or pressed it from close range. The shining example is Johannesburg Star, who turned in nondescript Beyer Speed Figures of 66-61-63 in three sprints to start his career, and then ran two sharply improved races when stretched to two turns on the inner track, the latest a wire-to-wire maiden score by nearly 10 lengths with a 102 Beyer.

"I think he needs to be on the lead to run his best race," said Shivananda Parbhoo, the son of owner Bisnath Parboo. "We didn't think he was a speed horse, but for some reason he turned out to be."

Yep, for some reason a whole lot of horses have turned out to be speed horses over the years on conventional dirt tracks. But on Aqueduct's inner track, some of them think they're the second coming of Dr. Fager when they make it to the top. You can take that to the bank.