02/28/2002 1:00AM

Big Cap is all about finding the value play

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - The season is scarcely two months old and already the older handicap division is in tatters.

The latest casualty is the Santa Anita Handicap. Mizzen Mast and Lido Palace are sitting it out, and the situation that confronts handicappers is much like the recent Donn Handicap, won by a horse (Mongoose) fresh from the conditioned allowance ranks. In the classical sense, nobody belongs.

Handicapping the Big Cap by the book, the first thing to do is find the bona fide Grade 1 winners. Happy hunting. Despite its biggest field in nearly two decades, not one of the 14 Big Cap entrants has officially won a Grade or Group 1 in North America or Europe. Futural technically attained that level by virtue of a first-place finish and controversial disqualification in the 2001 Hollywood Gold Cup, yet he was up the track in his only other Grade 1 attempt.

The only other Group 1 victory belongs to Cagney, two years ago, on grass, in Brazil. Cagney's Group 1 score came in something known as the "GP Assoc Brasil Cria de Cavalo" that offered a not-so-princely sum of $30,800. These days, mid-level claimers at Charles Town and Mountaineer Park run for nearly that much.

So analyzing the Big Cap from a traditional handicapping perspective is probably not a bright idea. Better to treat it like the wide-open Grade 3 (purse: $1 million) that it basically is, and fuhgeddabout about trying to zero in on "the winner" per se.

A better tactic, one that outperforms the "who d'ya like" mentality most of the time, is to construct a betting line and reserve all wagering decisions until the odds can be evaluated to see whether value exists. In some cases there is no bet. Other times one, two and perhaps even three horses may be overlays.

In making a line for the Big Cap, I took the approach that seven horses have been capable of running a Beyer Speed Figure of 110 or better at least once. With a cool million on the line, you can be sure they're getting the high-octane treatment in an effort to turbo-boost those speedometers again. The trick, given that Thoroughbreds of the new millennium have the toughness and durability of stained glass, is figuring which one(s) might be firing on all cylinders today.

Along with the magnificent seven I also included the Brazilian turf horse, Cagney, because of his big-race trainer, Dick Mandella, and several good-looking workouts on Santa Anita's main track. Hey, who knows?

Remember, these are not morning-line odds, which reflect an oddsmaker's opinion of how the public will bet, but betting-line odds, which are the player's estimate of what constitutes a bettable price:

HorseLine

Cagney10-1

Sky Jack5-1

Giant Gentleman5-1

Euchre8-1

Futural7-2

Dig for It50-1

Milwaukee Brew8-1

Western Pride10-1

The rest20-1

Comments:

Cagney: He was a consistent U.S. performer on turf before coming up lame in the Japan Cup. Sharp return in the San Marcos. Cagey connections realize he will never see a softer $1 million spot to try dirt.

Sky Jack: He could "bounce" after knock-down-drag-out brawl in a swiftly run mile, which was his first start in 14 months. Still, his last three Beyers average 115, and two of those were on this track.

Giant Gentleman: Lightly raced and still eligible to improve, but his pedigree and the fact that he lost ground in two previous starts at 1 1/8 miles are ominous signs as he stretches to a classic distance.

Euchre/Milwaukee Brew entry: There's the "Frankel Factor" to consider, but this is his third string. These horses have each had their chances at this distance, and have unfailingly come up small. They make the race worth betting if, as hoped, they are grossly overbet.

Futural: Beaten open lengths by Sky Jack in seasonal bow, which may help to inflate the price on the Big Cap's most likely winner. That even effort in a classified allowance was strictly a prep for multiple Grade 2 winner who beat Aptitude at 1 1/4 miles last summer.

Dig for It: Part of the mutuel field along with no-hoper Last Parade. From 40 lifetime starts, he has run fast enough to hit the board here just once.

Western Pride: He peaked with a gut-wrenching San Fernando win through searing fractions first time back from a layoff, and then fell to pieces in the Strub. A strong part of the pace, his bounce-back chances increase in the event of a wet track. Under such conditions I would re-adjust his bettable odds to 6-1.

Rest of field: If this race were run 100 times, perhaps only a handful would be won by one of the upstarts.