Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 1:13 PM
The Aqueduct main track spring meet - which opened on Friday, March 31 for seventeen racing days leading up to the opening of Belmont at the end of April - is always one of the most overlooked and underrated race meets of the year. Aqueduct's spring meet is always highly anticipated following the long cold winter in New York on the inner dirt track, and with only 17 days on the main track in the spring, if you blink, you'll miss a short but sweet month that features the return of turf racing, as well as many big-name jockeys, trainers, and horses to New York.
On the racetrack, the Big A main track meet brings instant relief for the winter racing blues with a meet that includes sprints at distances other than 6 furlongs, and eventually even the much-anticipated return of turf racing in New York, which is perhaps delayed a week or so this year due to an unseasonably cold spring in New York.
If the rising temperatures aren't a sure enough sign of spring, then perhaps the upcoming runnings of the Wood Memorial and of the year's first Grade 1 race in New York - the Carter Handicap - along with the return of baseball season, will finally be able to break-up the spring malaise for fans of New York sports and horse racing.
The 2017 Wood Memorial will be run on Saturday, April 8, and it will headline a race card of five graded stakes races along with the G1-Carter Handicap, the G2-Gazelle, the G3-Bay Shore, and the G3 Excelsior. The Wood Memorial, New York's premier Kentucky Derby prep race, is expected to attract a great field of Derby hopefuls.
The Wood memorial was downgraded to a Grade 2 race this season, but nevertheless remains one of the "big 6" prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby. This year's running will be headlined by Irish War Cry for trainer Graham Motion and Battalion Runner and Bonus Points for trainer Todd Pletcher. Irish War Cry looks to rebound from a seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, while Pletcher seeks his fifth victory in the Wood Memorial in the last eight years after winning the race with Eskendereya in 2010, Gemologist in 2012, Verrazano in 2013, and Outwork in 2016.
EMBRACE THE RETURN OF 6 1/2F, 7F, AND ONE-TURN MILES
Whereas the Aqueduct main track's Fall Meet is in many ways essentially just an extension of the Belmont Fall Meet, the Aqueduct Spring Meet represents the start of a major changeover for New York racing in many ways. First off, higher-profile horses and barns begin to return to New York from Florida during this time or year, either directly or with a stopover in Kentucky in-between. Second, as mentioned above, turf racing returns to the New York condition book along with the warmer spring weather. This should help fill more races and provide relief from the steady diet of five-, six-, and seven-horse fields that Aqueduct was plagued with on the inner track. And third, a wider array of races are available on the main track, namely 6 ½-furlong and 7-furlong races which cannot be accommodated on the inner track.
Perhaps the biggest change with the move to the main track at Aqueduct is the different track configuration that hastens the return from 6 ½ furlong and 7 furlong sprints, as well as one-turn miles, to the New York racing scene. This change cannot be underestimated, especially for the longer sprint-specializing horses that have been shoehorned into shorter sprints all winter long, by necessity. These 6 ½-furlong and 7-furlong specialists who have been losing all winter long on the inner track can now stretch back out to their preferred distances, and thereby often show dramatic and immediate turnarounds in their form.
The same is true for one-turn mile lovers who were forced to go two turns all winter long in races at one mile or longer. Different horses generally excel in one-turn miles than in two-turn miles, and one-turn miles also give a better chance for stretchout sprinters to be able to handle the added distance.
Beyond just the track layout, also be on the lookout in a horse's career record box in the past performances for Aqueduct main track and turf course horses for the course. These horses are usually different than the inner track horses for the course and often can improve their fortunes immediately with the switch away from the inner track, turning the tables on the same horses who'd beaten them all winter. Conversely, stay on the lookout for inner track horses for the course. Those winter track lovers will likely take a downturn in form as soon as they step foot on the Big A main track's very different footing.
AQUEDUCT MAIN TRACK TRENDS
In terms of running style and post position favoritism, keep in mind that Aqueduct's main track is among the fairest there is. Very little advantage can be gleaned by any one post position or running style versus any other. Interestingly, despite the rail post having a bad reputation in the main track's one-turn miles, the statistics fail to back that up.
All posts, including the rail, appear to be fair in one-turn miles, and if anything, based strictly on the numbers from recent main track meets under the current track superintendent, the rail seems to be better in mile races (one turn) than it is in two-turn routes. This is exactly the opposite from what one might expect. At other distances, post positions and running style preferences also are virtual non factors here. If anything, perhaps sprints can occasionally favor inside posts, but this is not a big enough bias to base your bets on.
Keep a close eye on how the track plays on the Aqueduct main track and be flexible enough to go with the flow with your wagering. An opening week bias might be just a short-term trend, but even a short-term trend may turn into a meet-long bias at a meet like this which lasts only four weeks.
AQUEDUCT TURF RACES
Aside from the return of high-caliber stakes racing in the spring on Aqueduct's main track, the other big occurrence this time of year is the return of turf racing to New York.
Many of the best bets on turf during the spring meet are horses that are coming in from out of town with some current form or at least recent turf form to show for themselves over the winter. These horses seem to have an edge over the turf horses who've wintered in New York. The exception to look for in this regard, however, are layoff turf horses who have purposefully been given a prep on the dirt in anticipation of the spring opening of Aqueduct's turf course. These horses are interesting because they almost always will have returned from a layoff with a very poor-looking dirt race, and therefore can be overlays that are easy for the masses to overlook.
Nevertheless, these returning turf horses are often strictly being prepped and "given a race" on the dirt by their trainers, who sneakily are looking ahead with their eyes on a return to the grass at this short meet. The best advice for these horses is to toss out their dirt preps and consider them "prepped and ready" for a much better effort when switched to the Aqueduct lawn.
As far as running styles are concerned on the Aqueduct grass course, many handicappers assume speed carries well on the Aqueduct turf because of its tight turns. Take note, however, that that only about 15% of all turf winners at Aqueduct go wire-to-wire. In fact, not only aren't front-runners good bets on the Aqueduct grass - but even the pace pressers sometimes don't fare too well, either. In total, about two-thirds of all grass winners should come from the second flight, or further back, during the early stages of the running of the race. Therefore, bet strong finishers on the Aqueduct lawn until you see proof that this trend is reversing.
Not surprisingly, the far outside posts generally do not do well on the Aqueduct lawn. Even when the closers tend to win more than their share, posts 8 and outward struggle on the Aqueduct turf. This seems to suggest the importance of saving ground early in Aqueduct turf races, especially around the first turn.
Finally, beware the far inside rail Post #1 on the Aqueduct grass, which has been dead on-and-off for parts of the past few years. Horses from other inside posts generally do well, but the rail post itself is hit-or-miss. Perhaps it is something that has to do with wet or dry weather. In wet weather, the turf rail might be the last place to fully dry out, making it a disadvantage when the track is being upgraded from something other than "firm" condition.
If you blink, you'll miss one of the great and underrated race meets of the year in Thoroughbred racing - the Big A main track spring meet. Follow these tips and enjoy the meet. These simple angles should be more than enough to give you a leg up in the rest of the betting public! Good luck and good racing at Aqueduct!
By Noel Michaels