08/13/2007 11:00PM

Bias victims at Monmouth

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OCEANPORT, NJ - Monmouth Park's main track is not the paved highway many perceive it to be, especially with a new strip installed this year, but given some recent high-profile biases it's hard to convince any casual bettor of that.

Yes, there are days where speed holds up exceptionally well. There are days when front-runners hold only a slight edge. And believe it or not, there have been some race days, especially at the start of the meet, when the new strip clearly favored horses on the outside.

Then, there's Haskell Day.

A strong 14-race card supported the meet's centerpiece race, the Grade 1 Haskell, which drew three of the top four 3-year-olds in the country. Curlin, coming off a narrow loss in the Belmont Stakes following a gritty score in the Preakness, was a deserving favorite, with Any Given Saturday, fresh off a sharp win in the Dwyer Stakes, a clear second choice. The hard-trying Hard Spun also fit the race well in terms of Beyers, earned in solid efforts in all three legs of the Triple Crown. It became clear early in the day, though, that the credentials of all contenders in the Haskell would have to be viewed in conjunction with projected trips, as runners on the rail held a subtle but powerful advantage.

The first six races on the card were won by horses who raced largely or entirely along the rail, and though there wasn't a longshot among them, there were a couple of results which strongly hinted at a bias. One was an easy score in a route race by Hermosillo, who had been sprinting - and failing - in his recent starts, tiring late despite beautiful pace scenarios. Another was an easy score by Prop Me Up, a perennial bridesmaid with 11 career runner-up finishes who surged along the rail to win the Lady's Secret Stakes. An inexplicably poor performance by the usually reliable Meadow Blue and an easy front-end score by Fagedaboudit Sal in the Lincroft were the final clues, as Meadow Blue was wide and off the pace and Fagedaboudit Sal was loose on the lead - and the rail.

That, it turned out, was where Any Given Saturday did his running, while odds-on favorite Curlin was caught wide. Hard Spun, in the two path for much of the race and inside Curlin in the stretch, was very game to get second, perhaps aided by his position on the racetrack. Any Given Saturday was an easy winner, but there's no telling what would have happened on an even surface, as a strong case can be made that the margin of victory, one way or the other, would have been less than the 4 1/2 lengths listed on the official chart of the race had Curlin and Any Given Saturday swapped trips.

Another high-profile horse to fall victim to an exceptionally strong bias here was Lawyer Ron. He was any price (actually 1-10) to win the Salvator Mile on June 23 against four overmatched rivals, and he not only held a big edge in terms of Beyers but he also appeared to have a pace advantage in his favor. With three confirmed speeds signed on, a quick pace was unavoidable, and given his class edge Lawyer Ron figured to just run right by a slew of tired horses in the stretch.

The track that day, though, was intensely speed-favoring. That enabled Gottcha Gold to spring the upset after shaking loose through splits of 22.95 seconds, 45.43, and 1:09.39, with Lawyer Ron slowly getting to the winner late while not ever really accelerating. On paper, it looked like a subpar effort. In reality, it was a very good try.

When Lawyer Ron returned for the Grade 1 Whitney at Belmont, his latest running line looked perplexing. The 108 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in the Salvator Mile fit the race well, but bettors handicapping the Whitney may have been wondering how he didn't win, given the quick fractions up front and the seemingly inferior winner. His decisive score at 5-1 against a deep group in the Whitney was so dominant that the final time was in question for days afterward, as it was nearly too fast to be believed. It's a lot to ask of Curlin to return and do the same thing in his next start, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and there's always the possibility that the rigors of the Triple Crown have caught up with him. But just as in the case of Lawyer Ron, there's a good chance he is better than he may have looked at Monmouth Park.