02/10/2005 1:00AM

Bias evaluation not always easy task


ARCADIA, Calif. - It does not require much courage to criticize Silent Bid, an improving 3-year-old entered in the Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds.

After all, when Silent Bid won a maiden race in his most recent start on Jan. 15 at Santa Anita, he benefited from a blatant speed bias that flattered every main-track front-runner. The Beyer Speed Figure of 89 earned by Silent Bid was the fastest of his career. But so what? It was earned under highly favorable conditions.

A skeptic's inclination is to downgrade Silent Bid's maiden victory, along with his chances in the Risen Star. And if the colt were to be among the favorites, it would be a rational analysis. It makes little sense to wager on a horse at low odds when one questions the validity of his best performance.

But it is not that simple in the Risen Star, for the simple reason that Silent Bid is not one of the favorites. He is an outsider with uncertain credentials, and his corresponding high odds may be sufficient reason to accept his maiden win at face value. When a handicapper grapples with an issue as vague as track bias, there has to be a built-in margin of error, and Silent Bid's high odds provide plenty of cushion.

Silent Bid probably is not as good as his last start makes him look, but that opinion is based largely on the perception of a pronounced bias. But what if the track-bias determination turns out to be mistaken? What if Silent Bid is as good as trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes?

"That horse is a serious horse," Lukas said early this week, "and he's a tank," standing 16.2 hands and weighing 1,250 pounds. "We'll find out a little bit more in the Risen Star."

Silent Bid's past performances show a horse who lost five races before finally winning, with the bias at his back. Lukas, who is never short on optimism anyway, kept the faith.

"You just had to keep going over there," Lukas said. "There was no way to get him [fit] . . . because he's a tank of a horse. You see him out here in the yard, and you'd think he's 5. I think he's okay."

Silent Bid needs another forward move in the Risen Star, which would be natural. This is the time of year when 3-year-olds blossom. Furthermore, early evidence suggests that the Santa Anita speed bias on Jan. 15 was not as severe as originally perceived.

It is even possible the maiden race won by Silent Bid was legitimate, as suggested by the runner-up, Papi Chullo, who came back Feb. 5 to finish second in the Sham Stakes. Papi Chullo improved his Beyer Figure from 87 in the maiden race to 98 in the Sham. If Silent Bid also improves 12 points Saturday, it puts him in the hunt in the Risen Star.

Adding further doubt about the Jan. 15 bias was a subsequent performance by Chekhov. He rallied from 10th to third in the maiden race, and gained trip-handicapper praise for his rally into the teeth of the bias. Based on the against-the-grain effort against maidens, Chekhov was hammered to 5-1 in the Sham, but he was never in the hunt and merely picked up some pieces to finish fifth. The lackluster performance suggested Chekhov's previous effort against maidens was not as "against-the-grain" as first believed.

Chekhov's disappointing effort in the Sham also illustrates the hazards of backing a low-odds runner based on a good performance over a biased racing surface. Handicapping ultimately boils down to one question: Is the risk worth the reward? At 5-1 against seasoned stakes winners, Chekhov probably qualified as an underlay.

Conversely, Courtly Jazz was ignored Feb. 4 in a first-condition allowance. A lightly raced 4-year-old, Courtly Jazz had won an ordinary maiden race Dec. 30 while racing on a surface that favored the inside - the same inside lane that Courtly Jazz ran in. So when he returned in an N1X, which is the logical spot for a lightly raced winner of a maiden special weight, Courtly Jazz started at 15-1.

Bettors reasoned that there would be no bias to benefit Courtly Jazz. They were right, the track played fair Feb. 4. It did not matter either way. Courtly Jazz continued his upward pattern, and won by two lengths at a $33 win mutuel. His Beyer Figure improved 13 points.

While bias frequently is a matter of interpretation, sometimes the evidence is irrefutable. It was the case Feb. 2 to Feb. 4 on the Santa Anita turf, when the temporary rails were placed at their outermost setting - 30 feet. The positioning narrows the course, and badly compromises the closers. Even on grass, speed can rule.

While none of the four turf routes from Feb. 2 to 4 were won by outsiders, there was little positional movement in the lane. Even horses chasing the pace from the second position, such as 24-1 longshot Trial by Jury on Feb. 3, stuck around and finished in the same spot.

The relevance of the short-term turf bias may be seen Saturday when Santa Anita shipper True Dancer runs in the $75,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup. True Dancer trailed the field Feb. 3 at Santa Anita, closed 10 lengths the final half-mile, but could finish only third while weaving through traffic. The gelding finished on his own, and galloped out super past the wire in a race that extended his razor-sharp form.

True Dancer is a logical contender Saturday regardless, but his last start was even better than it looks on paper.

As for Silent Bid, perhaps his last race was not as good as it looks. But a bettor must leave a parimutuel cushion, and there will be plenty of that. Silent Bid's odds will be high. He is a longshot contender and nothing more. If the bias moved him up, he will finish nowhere in the Risen Star.

But if the improving 3-year-old's form is accepted at face value, he could be the surprise package on Saturday at Fair Grounds - with or without a track bias.