05/07/2003 11:00PM

Belmont meet often gets off to fast start


ELMONT, N.Y. - Observations from Wednesday's opening-day card at Belmont Park:

* The main track can be very fast early at Belmont's spring meet. Najran, who had finished last by 34 lengths in his most recent start at Keeneland, ran a mile in 1:32.24 to equal the immortal Dr. Fager's 35-year-old North American record, and broke the track record of 1:32.60 set by Williamstown - in the Withers on opening day here 10 years ago. (Coincidentally, like Najran, Williamstown had also finished out of the money at Keeneland in his previous start.) On that afternoon of May 5, 1993, a New York-bred by the name of My Mogul equaled what was then the track record of 1:40.40 for 1 1/16 miles.

On opening day four years ago, a $75,000 claiming sprinter named Baltimore Gray won a 6 1/2-furlong sprint that featured fractions of 43.84, 1:08.75, and 1:15.08 - .68 of a second off the record.

* Horses with early speed are capable of winning big even when they set a fast pace. Najran didn't "steal" the Westchester Handicap by loping along on an easy lead, he set a blistering pace and ran his pursuers off their collective feet. On American dirt tracks, letting a horse roll through fast fractions and "bottoming out" the field in this manner is often a more dynamic strategy than rating the same horse through slow fractions. Some horses resent the restraint and become rank, and even if they rate nicely their advantage may be nullified by letting the closers remain in striking range.

* Avoid knee-jerk proclamations about track bias, and don't ever rely on the nonsensical opinions of trainers and jockeys, who are notoriously the world's worst handicappers.

Belmont's huge oval is 12 furlongs around and therefore not thought of as a front-runner's paradise like Keeneland or Gulfstream Park. But the reality is that Belmont, like the vast majority of racetracks across the nation, inherently favors horses with early speed. The difference is that all races up to and including 1 1/8 miles are run around one gigantic turn, so saving ground isn't nearly as important as at smaller tracks. In fact, the rail is usually the last place you want your horse to be at Belmont.

After the Westchester, winning rider Edgar Prado offered this insight: "Speed has been doing well all day."

Speed is the universal track bias. Speed does well practically every day, every which-where.

Connections of Westchester also-rans blamed the track, telling the New York Racing Association press staffers such things as "Horses haven't been backing up today" and "The way the track is playing, horses that make the front are not backing up."

What races were they watching? Najran was one of just two wire-to-wire winners from seven dirt races on a card where, two races earlier, Message Red won a restricted stakes at one mile after trailing the field to practically the quarter pole.

On a truly speed-biased track, few horses will change position, and few will rally late to finish in the money. In addition to Message Red, though, Saarland was able to rally from last position after the opening half-mile to finish a clear second in the Westchester. Earlier, an 8-1 shot named Decoder came from fifth to complete an exacta behind the day's only other wire-to-wire winner, Stone Canyon (who was 6-5 and a most likely winner to begin with). Completing the trifecta behind the pace-pressing winner, Moloko, in the third race were Virgin Voyage and Sabre of Silver, who came from next to last and last. The fourth-race exacta was completed by 10-1 shot Black Mambo, who trailed the field at the first call and rallied to outfinish the rest by open lengths.

The track played extremely fast, to be sure. But there was no evidence of a bias toward early speed, no more so than what is par for the course at most tracks daily.

The big lesson from turf racing at Aqueduct

Here is the vital lesson to be learned from the 21 turf races run at Aqueduct's spring meet: Be prejudiced in favor of layoff horses.

Based on the results - 15 wins by layoff horses, and one winning first-time starter out of the 21 races - that last sentence is is worth reading again. Do not penalize a turf horse for recent inactivity, especially if he has previously shown the ability to run well fresh and/or the trainer's layoff stats are at least average. On turf, the pace is often slow, the footing is forgiving, and races are won with late bursts of speed that are relatively short in duration. This is in sharp contrast to, say, a sprint on the main track where the issue is hotly contested gate to wire.

It doesn't matter how long the layoff was, either, as shown in the complete rundown of the "sweet 16" presented in the accompanying chart. The layoffs ranged from seven weeks to more than 10 months.

Notes on the chart: The most common profile was that of a conditioned allowance runner returning for his or her first start of the year. . . . Todd Pletcher, Bruce Levine, and Randy Schulhofer each saddled two layoff winners, though Mikeymon, from Pletcher's barn, was a first-time starter, and therefore not a layoff winner in the classic sense of the word. . . .The five exceptions, those turf winners who entered off of recent racing, all occurred in maiden special-weight events.