05/09/2002 12:00AM

Baby maidens most reliable favorites

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Through the earliest stages of Belmont Park's spring meet favorites are batting 1.000 in 2-year-old maiden races. That's not really saying much because there have only been two dashes for babies thus far, but the smart money says that favorites in these races will continue to outperform the universal 33 percent average right through the end of the meet.

This is horse racing, so nothing is written in stone, but when it comes to juvenile maiden sprints there really is something to the old racing bromide: "Watch the tote board."

Consider these stats:

At Belmont's 2000 spring meet, the post-time favorite won 12 of 34 maiden races for 2-year-olds, a 35 percent win rate.

In the same type of race at the 2001 spring meet, favorites went 15 for 34, for a 44 percent batting average.

That means that favorites in juvenile maiden races are 27 for 68 during the last two spring meets at Belmont.

That's almost 40 percent winners, which can be a powerful statistic when you're looking for a reliable horse and/or type of race to key on in multi-race exotics like the pick six.

At first glance, 40 percent winning favorites in baby races seems hard to believe, because there is less information available for evaluation. If there is less dope on which to base decisions, how is it possible the public does a better job at finding the favorite in 2-year-old maiden races than it does in races for older claimers who have been around for years?

The fact is, more information doesn't necessarily promise to yield clearer, more insightful decisions. Much of the data in older horses' records can be an exercise in contradictions, as when a horse has won four of six recently but is going from a hot trainer to a no-win trainer; or when a horse looks like the lone early speed horse but has never managed to win at the distance.

With 2-year-olds, much of the tote board impetus comes from one simple fact: Word is out, either from stable insiders, workout observers, or both, that the horse can run. Period.

Back in the old days - actually, as recently as the early 1990's - Daily Racing Form readers had precious little to go on when handicapping a field of first-time starters besides the raw basics of pedigree, trainer, and a few workouts. But many innovations have been added since then.

When handicappers perused the Belmont past performances for Thursday's five-furlong dash, they also were presented with foaling dates, auction prices, stud fees, trainer statistics in four categories, workout rankings, and "A Closer Look" narrative. Those who were trying to assess Presence, the eventual winner at $3.50, knew at a glance that trainer Michael Hushion had a profitable $2.14 ROI with first-time starters since the start of 2001. Kenny Peck's Closer Look stated that his dam, Fateful Beauty, had already produced four winners from five starters, including David, a New York-bred who placed in the San Bernardino Handicap and ran third in the Mass Cap in 2000.

Some special notes:

* Keep in mind that trainer stats can fluctuate from season to season. For example, Mark Hennig's five wins all came in the spring of 2000, when his barn included the likes of eventual multiple graded stakes winners Raging Fever and With Ability; last year, he had none.

* Those looking to get an early line on D, Wayne Lukas's future-book chances in the Kentucky Derby will recall that 1996 Derby winner Grindstone was unveiled here in the spring of 1995, and that one of his winners last year was Proud Citizen; five of Lukas's seven winners were favored, including Proud Citizen at $2.60, and the other two were 3-1.

* Three of Bill Mott's four winners came in the six-furlong turf sprints scheduled for later in the meet.