doesn’t officially end until 12:29 a.m. (EST) on December 22, but
there’s no surer harbinger of winter than the inner track season at
Aqueduct Racetrack, a magnet for ambitious young jockeys, canny trainers and
hard-knocking claimers since its opening in 1976.
Bridging two calendar years and
spanning three seasons – racing over the winterized surface began on
November 30 and will conclude on March 31 – the 2011-12 inner track meet
will retain much of its traditional flavor even as it sees a whole new
dimension. Total purses for the 2012 Aqueduct winter/spring meet are expected
to increase by approximately $8.6 million, or 36 percent, over this
year’s meet due to the opening of Genting’s Resorts World Casino New
The boost in purses has drawn well-known
outfits such as Eddie Kenneally, Ken McPeek, Dale Romans, Juan Serey and Jason
Servis to New York for the winter as well as attracting several new faces,
including Jamie Ness from the Mid-Atlantic, Eric Reed from the Midwest, and Kentucky’s
John Paul Pucek and John Good.
Hall of Famer Bill Mott will keep a
division in New York for the first time in
several years, with assistant Leana Willaford overseeing some 20 horses at Belmont Park, including Ron the Greek, who is
under consideration for the Queens County Handicap on December 10.
As Todd Pletcher opens defense of
his inner track training title for the second time, other New York trainers maintaining a more robust
presence over the winter include Chad Brown, Mark Hennig and John Terranova,
with Gary Contessa, Dominic Galluscio and Bruce Levine also expanding their
stables. Chris Englehart, who had 26 winners over the inner track last season,
returns with a bigger string this year.
The winter jockey colony at the Big
A will remain a strong one, headed by reigning Eclipse Award winner Ramon
Dominguez, who is seeking his fifth consecutive inner track riding title. Among
those joining him are stalwarts Junior Alvarado, Jorge Chavez, David Cohen.
Jose Espinoza, Alan Garcia, Channing Hill, Abel Lezcano, C.C. Lopez, Mike
Luzzi, and Cornelio Velasquez, along with Jackie Davis, Maylan Studart, and
With at least a five-pound weight
allowance, apprentice jockeys are always in demand at the Big A, but two of them
are already familiar faces: Ryan Curatolo, who began riding at Belmont in
April, and Irad Ortiz, Jr., who showed up a month later. Both are due to lose
their “bugs” soon, but may get extensions because of injury time
Curatolo, 19, a contract rider for
Flying Zee Stable, has already won several stakes including the Grade 3 Miss
Grillo with Pure Gossip, the Grade 3 Hill Prince with Street Game and the
Bertram F. Bongard with Night Manuever. On day 3 of the inner track, the French
native reeled off four consecutive winners.
Ortiz, however, is just beginning
to make his presence felt. On opening day of the inner track meet, the 19-year-old
native of Puerto Rico rode three winners,
adding two more on Thursday.
“He’s a natural –
he’s small, he’s light, and he’s well-liked,” said Tony
Micallef, Ortiz’ agent. “He was referred to me by Pito Rosa, a
security guard in the jockey’s room who knows his family well and who
knew the kid in Puerto Rico, where he won 77
races in four months. I looked at the tapes, and my first impression was he
didn’t look like a bug boy. Everyone likes him, and the five pounds is a
Two new bug riders are Michael
Birriel, 22, of Puerto Rico, who has ridden at Penn National and Suffolk Downs,
and Jose Luis Rodriguez, 21, also of Puerto Rico, who comes to Aqueduct from Calder
Race Course in Florida.
In addition to serving as a
showcase for up-and-coming riders, the inner track has spotlighted many of
racing’s future stars and last season’s meet was no exception.
It’s Tricky, who later won
the Grade 1 TVG Acorn and the Grade 1 TVG Coaching Club American Oaks, flashed
her colors over the inner track early on, taking an optional claimer on January
26 in her second career start and next annexing the Busher on February 20.
Multiple graded stakes winner Arena
Elvira broke her maiden over the inner track on December 10, 2010 as a
3-year-old, and went on to win the Sightseek and Madame Jumel stakes at
Saratoga Race Course as well as the Grade 2 Turnback the Alarm over the Big
A’s main track and the Grade 2 Fall City Handicap at Churchill Downs for
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.
Buster’s Ready, who was 1-1-1
in three inner track starts last season, parlayed her fondness for the surface
into a Grade 1 victory in the Mother Goose at Belmont Park
and a runner-up finish behind Royal Delta in the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan at
Pimlico Race Course.
Stay Thirsty signaled his readiness
to take his place among the year’s top sophomores when he won the Grade 3
Gotham over the inner, a foretaste of his victories at Saratoga in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and the
Grade 1 Travers.
Ruler On Ice also put in appearance
on the inner track, finishing second in an optional claimer on February 4, four
months before his upset victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.
Other graded stakes winners who geared
up over the inner track include Toby’s Corner, who used the Whirlaway as
a stepping stone to his upset victory in the Grade 1 Resorts World New York
Casino Wood Memorial; Super Espresso, who took an allowance and an overnight
stakes over the inner before taking the Grade 3 Allaire du Pont Distaff in May
at Pimlico for her owner, celebrity chef Bobby Flay; Sunrise Smarty, an
allowance winner in February who returned to take the Grade 3 Fall Highweight
over the Big A’s main track; Nicole H, who won the inner track’s
Garland of Roses and the Interborough prior to her Grade 2 Distaff win in April,
and Teaks North, who was third in the Cosmic Bob Stakes on the inner
track last December before going on to win a pair of Grade 1 turf races in
2011, upsetting the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap in January and defeating
Stacelita en route to a United Nations triumph in July at Monmouth Park.