10/15/2009 11:00PM

A bad-looking bunch? May want to think again

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Eight fillies had barely crossed the wire Sept. 5 in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, and some handicappers had already made up their minds: The seven-furlong sprint was a bad race, and probably insignificant.

The winner, Mi Sueno, appeared hopelessly beaten into the lane. Favored at even money, she dropped from fourth to sixth and was spinning her wheels. Somehow, she gutted it out and re-rallied to a one-length victory in a drab time of 1:23.78.

The others had their shot and fell short. Runner-up Blind Luck broke slow, raced wide, and put in a belated rally. Not good enough. La Nez finished an ordinary third. Not good enough. The first five finishers were separated by less than two lengths. Not good enough.

Back in the days of traditional dirt racing, a bunched-up field meant one thing - it was a bad race.

So it was in the 2009 Debutante. The final time produced a 77 Beyer, later upgraded to 81, and the visual impression matched the low number. The field struggled through the lane. None of the fillies looked for more ground.

Many handicappers were willing to take an immediate stand against the race. When also-rans from a bad race return to run again, who needs them?

That was the opinion the first weekend of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. Mi Sueno was injured and out, but the second- and third-place finishers from the Debutante were running back.

Blind Luck was stretching out Oct. 4 in the Grade 1 Oak Leaf at 1 1/16 miles; La Nez was dropping in class Oct. 3 in the $100,000 California Cup Juvenile Fillies at seven furlongs. Cynics predicted little success. If either hoped to be competitive, she would need to pick up her game.

The trainer of La Nez, however, had a different take on the Debutante.

"They were just posturing," Eric Kruljac said, referring to the low-rated, bunched-up Debutante.

La Nez lost that race by a length and a head and was dropping to face statebreds in the Cal Cup, where Kruljac considered the key factor.

"Class," he said.

He was right, and so was the betting public. Despite exiting the seemingly low-rated Debutante, La Nez was bet down to 2-1 favoritism in the Cal Cup. La Nez delivered, winning the race by 1 1/2 lengths.

That was Saturday. A day later, it was Blind Luck's turn in the Oak Leaf. Cynics were not swayed by La Nez's victory. Blind Luck was facing better and running two turns, and many speculated her runner-up finish in the Debutante would not translate to victory in the Oak Leaf.

Bettors, however, pounded Blind Luck from a 6-1 morning line to 7-2 co-second choice. Apparently, the wagering public was confident her finish in the Debutante was better than either the slow time or negative visual impression. Besides, her works on the Pro-Ride surface suggested potential improvement.

Blind Luck saved ground inside, angled out into the stretch, and powered to a 2 1/4-length Oak Leaf victory that stamped her as a legitimate contender for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She improved her Beyer from 79 in the Debutante to 88 in the Oak Leaf.

What happened? How could some handicappers commit such a grossly mistaken analysis of the Debutante, a race that produced two next-out stakes winners?

It was not the first mistaken analysis of a 2-year-old stakes race on synthetic surface in Southern California.

As it turns out, sometimes bad races on synthetic are not so bad after all. Yet bettors get caught in a trap, looking for visually impressive, blowout wins that rarely occur.

"You can't separate yourself," trainer Bob Baffert said, referring to the decreased finish margins in synthetic races. "The only horse that wins by more is Zensational."

Synthetic surfaces lend themselves to bunched finishes. Displays of pure brilliance do not occur, and a bunched field doesn't necessarily mean a bad race.

It happened last fall in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity, won by Baffert-trained Pioneerof the Nile.

It was not a pretty race, though Baffert tried to spin it as such. He claimed the margin (nose) and slow time (1:41.95; Beyer Figure 86) were not as relevant as how Pioneerof the Nile did it - taken out of his game plan with a premature move that was necessitated by the slow pace. And he got there first.

Old-school dirt-based handicappers did not buy it. It was a slow race, with the field bunched. Sure, it was a Grade 1, but it was a bad Grade 1. But when they all started running back, it became clear the negative impression was mistaken.

Pioneerof the Nile won three more graded stakes and finished second in the Kentucky Derby; Futurity runner-up I Want Revenge won the Grade 3 Gotham and Grade 1 Wood; and third-place Chocolate Candy won two stakes.

As it turns out, neither the Hollywood CashCall Futurity last fall nor the Del Mar Debutante this summer were as inferior as the final time or the visual impression might have suggested.

And in this age of synthetic surfaces, handicappers are facing the fact that a skeptical approach is less meaningful now than it was before the advent of Cushion Track, Polytrack, or Pro-Ride.

It is something to keep in mind this weekend at Santa Anita, where three Grade 1's will be run on the main track.

And handicappers might want to be careful before knocking the winner of the Goodwood, the Lady's Secret, or the Ancient Title.

Their finish margins and final times might be less important than the fact they showed up and hit the board.