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Winter Spotlight on Aqueduct Inner Track

Fall 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 York City.

 

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 Janice Blake-Baeza.

 

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 missed.

 

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 bonus.”

 

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.

 


 

 

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