08/26/2005 12:00AM

Be leery of Ballerina's front-runners

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The best place to start an analysis of the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga on Sunday is with the expected pace of the seven-furlong race.

Vision of Beauty has led at the first call in four of her seven career starts. But she has been facing allowance and optional-claiming horses in her recent races, softer company than she faces Sunday. Forest Music led early vs. Grade 2 foes in her last two races, and she battled through faster fractions in six-furlong races than Vision of Beauty set while going seven furlongs. Molto Vita and Happy Ticket should be tracking them a couple of lengths off the pace, and Happy Ticket should be dangerous.

Forest Music appears to be the speed of the speed in the Ballerina. That can be a significant advantage in a seven-horse field. Unfortunately, there is a downside for the potential leaders in this race as seven furlongs is not the optimal distance for front-runners at Saratoga. The research I have done for my upcoming book, "The Power of Early Speed," shows that front-runners are strong at Saratoga at five, 5 1/2, and six furlongs. Although my research was a long-term study covering nearly 10 years of results, the data sample was still too small to be significant at 6 1/2 furlongs. Add the results from those four sprint distances together, however, and front-runners produced a 29 percent win rate, and a $2.60 return on investment. But front-runners have been less successful at seven furlongs, with 22 percent wins and a $2.05 return on investment.

There is another concern about the chances of Forest Music at this distance. She lost ground during the last furlong in eight of her last nine races at shorter distances. That does not bode well for her performance during the last furlong of this race, and her 2-1 morning-line odds will not offer much in the way of betting value.

Note that the six-furlong to seven-furlong distance switch that will hinder Forest Music will improve the chances of the closers who had all the worst of it at six furlongs, where horses with early speed are much more formidable. Bank Audit and My Trusty Cat are the closers most likely to benefit. But My Trusty Cat was helped by the hot 21.39- and 43.80-second pace of her last race. The effect of those fractions is underlined by the fact that the horses who were sixth, seventh (My Trusty Cat), and eighth early in that eight-horse field rallied to finish first, second, and fourth. I will downgrade My Trusty Cat a bit for that. Bank Audit finished 6 1/2 lengths behind Forest Music last time, but she beat Forest Music in the previous matchup on May 14. Bank Audit is capable of running a much better race than she did on Aug. 5, especially since five of the six dirt races run at Saratoga that day were won by horses who were either first or second at the first call.

With the right rating tactics, Happy Ticket can enjoy an excellent trip just off the pace. Her nine wins from 10 career starts is impressive, and she seems well-suited to this distance. Add Bank Audit in the exotics with some betting value at 5-1 morning line odds. Since the Ballerina is the ninth race, you will be able to get a feel for how the main track is playing while watching the five dirt races run prior to that race. If early and tactical speed are preferred, place more emphasis on Happy Ticket, and include Forest Music for a part in the exotics. But if the track is playing fair or is favoring off-the-pace types, place more emphasis on Bank Audit, with Happy Ticket represented frequently in the other exotic slots.

* Paul Schott, the press box mutuel clerk at Keeneland for many years, died recently. During the 11 years I've worked at Keeneland, Schott was unfailingly cheerful and pleasant to all, so much so that he would occasionally favor his press box audience by breaking into song. I have always enjoyed the two months each year I spend at Keeneland, but the press box won't be the same without him.