by Dick Powell

Years ago, I used to work for Fair Grounds Race Course. As a big player in the simulcast market, we had the advantage of good weather and a turf course. When bad weather would hit the Northeast, we would benefit. In fact one year, Aqueduct cancelled on the day of the Louisiana Derby (G2) and we did a record $12 million in all-sources handle.

Lately, New York racing has been suffering. I detailed some of the problems with their gaming revenue dropping and the future consequences for purses, breeders’ awards, track operations and capital improvements. The changes at Aqueduct that benefited Nassau County OTB have only gotten worse and, two weeks ago, their 460 video lottery terminals (VLTs), that were once used for NYRA, did an incredible $1,009 win per machine per day.

Those negative consequences will be felt more in the future but it’s all a part of the decline of winter racing at Aqueduct. This year, NYRA went with a four-day race week for January and February and will only race three days a week in March. Even with the limited schedule, field sizes have been brutal and last Friday, in the last race of an eight-race card, there were only six starters.

While all that is going on, with no end in sight, simulcast players have been flocking to Gulfstream Park, which it seems like every weekend does Saratoga-like business. They run plenty of races and, with a 180-foot wide turf course that can be configured for maximum usage, field sizes have thrived.

The anomaly is that Aqueduct has much better purses than Gulfstream so why do New York horsemen flock there in record numbers? Part of it is turf racing, part of it preparing three-year-olds for a classic campaign without weather interruptions, part of it is the weather itself, and part of it is the numerous training centers within 90 minutes of Gulfstream where you don’t even have to stable at the track.

The other factor that I hear consistently from horsemen is that with all the racing at Gulfstream, they are confident that a race that they are pointing for in the condition book will be used since it is likely to attract a big enough field. In New York, with the current horse shortage, many races just don’t fill and the trainer is left to either wait for it to do so, which can screw up a horse’s training regimen, or go to plan B (Parx Racing, Laurel Park, etc.).

So big purses are great but it is only one factor in stables deciding where to spend the winter and, as the big purses start to shrink – remember 540 more VLTs at Aqueduct will be assigned to Nassau OTB, they will be the next-best performing ones, and that three casinos are eligible to be located in the downstate area – racing in New York will continue to suffer and not just at Aqueduct.

So, what’s a horse player to do? I am a creature of habit and follow Aqueduct’s inner dirt track religiously. I still maintain that if you do the work, money can be made as the track can change radically from day to day due to weather.

But, Gulfstream has been pretty tempting this winter. I love turf racing and follow the rail placements attentively. There are two distinct turf courses, sometimes three, and my inclination is that when the rail placements are low, it favors inside posts and tactical speed. When the rail placements are out wide, it favors deep closers on the outside that have more time to get to the wire.

Without a privet hedge but a PVC rail, the two Gulfstream turf courses perform similarly to the two turf courses at Saratoga.

One day there were 81 individual trainers that had horses entered and 39 different jockeys. This makes it very hard to follow individual strengths and weaknesses but at least the BRIS Ultimate Past Performances give you lots of details on people you might not have heard of plus up-to-the-minute track and course bias data.

When Gulfstream turf racing is good, it is very good. It’s never bad but can be very hard with big fields getting bunched up and the horse with the trip gets the money. I had one bad streak where nothing was working then it all turned around. Winning photo finishes also helps so I’ll be the first to admit there’s luck involved.

If you are not familiar with a trainer or jockey, I wouldn’t hold it against them by looking elsewhere. Go down the list of leading trainers and jockeys and there are many unfamiliar names winning races. I don’t follow south Florida racing the rest of the year so someone that might be unfamiliar is just a function of my attention turning back north in April.

Also, not every $6,250 claimer is the same. They write NW2L and NW3L for them and then there are the open $6,250 claimers, which can be a salty group.

Finally, at every distance going one turn on the main track, speed does very well. Going two turns on the main track, not so well. On the inner dirt track at Aqueduct it is the complete opposite where speed does better going two turns than one.

No wonder it pays to be bi-polar to be successful at this game.