With a new turf course, a renovated main track, and a reconfigured stakes schedule, Aqueduct opens for its six-month run of live racing Friday.
Management has replaced the inner dirt track used since 1975 for winter racing with a second turf course. The outer turf course is a mile in circumference and will allow for races to be run from distances of six furlongs to 1 3/4-miles. Turf sprints, which were not able to be carded on the original turf course, have become quite popular on this circuit, and there will likely be one a day run on the outer course.
“We’re going to run two races a day on it, one sprint, one route,” Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association said.
Panza said he will resist the temptation to overuse the turf course, knowing it’s going to be in better condition next year than this year.
“Obviously, the longer it’s down the better it’s going to be,” Panza said. “We’re thrilled to have it. We’ll just do the right thing by it. If it’s that much better next April and that much better next fall, it’s the right thing to do.”
Panza said he is hopeful turf racing will run through Dec. 3. If the weather allows, Panza said he would extend turf racing by another week.
Panza said he would prefer not to run more than four turf races a day at Aqueduct as he tries to transition to having all-dirt race cards come mid-December. Last winter, during what was the inner-track season, average field size per race on dirt was 7.38.
“You can’t go from six turf races a day to none,” Panza said. “You get some horses down from Finger Lakes and you get some New York-breds that were waiting for the winter because the competition is a little easier. That’s sort of how Aqueduct works.”
Aqueduct’s outer track has a limestone base and a sandy loam cushion, making its composition similar to that of the training track at Belmont Park. There will be additional clay in the main track to help it better handle moisture.
At Aqueduct, there will be 30 stakes run worth a total of $5,175,000 over 40 days from Nov. 3 through Dec. 31, compared to 29 stakes worth $4.85 million in 2016.
The biggest day of the Aqueduct fall meet has typically been the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a four-stakes card topped by the Cigar Mile. This year, management has moved the Cigar Mile, the Remsen, the Demoiselle, and Go for Wand Handicap back a week to Dec. 2, giving horses who run in this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar additional time to run back.
“We need to experiment,” Panza said. “If it helps, then we’ll keep it. If it doesn’t, then we’ll have to look at the handle numbers. Did we still handle well Thanksgiving weekend, and did Dec. 2 become a good day for us?”
The Cigar Mile, which previously had a base purse of $500,000 with bonuses to attract Grade 1 and Breeders’ Cup winners, will have a flat purse of $750,000.
“I’m hoping that helps,” Panza said. “That’s a pretty significant chunk of money for a miler.”
The Remsen, for 2-year-olds, and Demoiselle, for 2-year-old females, will each be worth $250,000, which is $50,000 less than last year.
The Grade 3, $200,000 Discovery for 3-year-olds will be the headline stakes on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That card will include the unveiling of two new turf stakes – the $150,000 Forever Together for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles and the $125,000 Aqueduct Turf Sprint Championship at six furlongs. A third new turf stakes, the $125,000 Autumn Days for fillies and mares at six furlongs, will be held Nov. 26.
First post most days at Aqueduct will be 12:20 p.m. Eastern. Saturday’s card begins five minutes earlier.
Friday’s opening-day card will include a two-day pick six carryover from Belmont of $70,977 that must be distributed on Friday regardless of whether anyone selects all six winners in the sequence.