01/08/2004 1:00AM

Big drop is key to 4-year-old winners


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - New Year's Day is the official "birthday" for all Thoroughbreds, which means that claiming races for older horses suddenly have an influx of new 4-year-olds.

Consequently, the early stages of a new season can be a time of maximum confusion for horseplayers, as they try to evaluate which of last fall's 3-year-old claimers can go on to compete successfully with their elders.

Conventional wisdom holds that the new 4-year-olds will require a drop in price, perhaps as much as 50 percent, because: a) owners are reluctant to part with young, lightly raced horses, so 3-year-old claiming prices are inflated to begin with; and b) after racing with their own still-developing age group last year, they now face race-savvy veterans, some of whom may have been multiple allowance winners, or even stakes winners, earlier in their careers.

That's pretty much understood by most bettors, but it's important to note that these are general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Indeed, players can gain an edge by fine-tuning the textbook principles depending on the specific horse population at a given circuit.

Early returns from Aqueduct's inner-track meet, for example, suggest that there is money to be made by backing the 4-year-olds in both the male and the filly-and-mare ranks. There were 10 races for open claimers age 4 and up during the first five racing days of 2004, five each among males and females. How well the 4-year-olds have fared is worth reviewing (see chart).

The common thread among the quartet of 4-year-old filly winners was a drop in class following an off-the-board finish last time out:

* Phone Me a Favor dropped 50 percent in price after finishing fifth by a dozen lengths.

* Smokinemall dropped from an entry-level allowance after an eighth-place finish.

* Remi's Rocket dropped from $16,000 after a fifth-place finish.

* Blazing Tune dropped from a second-level allowance in which she was beaten 23 lengths.

So far, a good last race means nothing. The drop means everything.

The 4-year-old fillies won four of the first five open claimers, posting an overall 4-for-17 record, and as a group they returned $50.70 on a blind $34 investment.

Mares 5 and up went a dismal 1 for 18.

The 4-year-old colts and geldings were not as commonly seen against older claimers, as a total of only six started in the five races. Still, two of them won, at square prices, and returned a total of $33.60 on a $12 investment.

As with the fillies, the desired profile was a drop in class after an out-of-the-money finish:

* Sherwood Forest dropped from a fourth-place finish for $18,000 in his final start vs. 3-year-olds.

* One Momento plunged to the basement following a 21-length beating in an entry-level allowance for New York-breds.

Aqueduct stakes roundup

Shifting gears from the claimers, here is a brief recap of the first dozen stakes run on the inner track this winter.

Dec. 10, East View (New York-breds): Leedle Dee ($11.60), a distant third in an entry-level allowance less than three weeks earlier, quickly sped clear and rode a speed bias to draw away unchallenged as one of the day's seven wire-to-wire winners.

Dec. 12, Mom's Command: Stephan's Angel ($5) shipped in for trainer John Servis and improved to 3 for 3 lifetime, trailing early in the six-furlong sprint and blowing by pacesetter Forest Music in midstretch.

Dec. 13, Queens County Handicap: Thunder Blitz ($11.80) stalked a snail's pace and pulled clear. Stretch-running favorite Evening Attire was forced out of his best game, having to lay close early, and lacked his usual punch.

Dec. 17, Damon Runyon (New York-breds): West Virginia ($4) was life-and-death to stave off Salty Character after a prolonged drive, while drifting out repeatedly in the slop.

Dec. 20, Ladies Handicap: Savedbythelight ($11), beaten at 6-5 in a second-level allowance in her last start, stalked an absurdly slow pace of 51.08 seconds and 1:15.84, then drew away in a dreadful renewal. This race may lose its graded ranking at the next review.

Dec. 21, Gravesend Handicap: When a multiple stakes winner like Shake You Down ($3.80) is allowed to lead through a slower first quarter (22.64 seconds) than a 2-year-old maiden sprint (22.51) and an entry-level allowance (22.36) in the two preceding races, school is out.

Dec. 26, Maria's Mon: Scary Bob ($14.20) was exiting a statebred allowance win; runner-up Tale of Woe had just won the much slower division of a maiden dash on Dec. 10. Not exactly the strongest juvenile stakes of 2003.

Dec. 27, Gallant Fox Handicap: In the absence of three-time defending champ Coyote Lakes, Loving ($41.80) staged an abrupt reversal of form after finishing a lackluster fifth behind several of these horses in a prep race 17 days earlier.

Dec. 28, Alex M. Robb (New York-breds): Salute Him was 3 for 31 going in and rallied from fifth to win laughing, which doesn't say much for the 11 behind him.

Jan. 1, Interborough Handicap: Fit Performer ($13.20) fit the "bounce, bounce-back" angle. She began her current form cycle with a career top 94 Beyer, regressed to an 84, and then rebounded to another top of 98.

Jan. 3, Count Fleet: Visitors to the New York Racing Association website (nyra.com) were able to read the stakes advance titled "Two-Turn Win Favors Distressed Debt In Count Fleet," and afterward, on the same home page, were able to click on the race recap titled "No-Brainer Favorite Smarty Jones Takes Count Fleet."

Jan. 4, Ruthless: Baldomera ($5.90), last-out Beyer 68, was last of five until midstretch. She won going away as the four fillies in front of her got the staggers, most notably the 6-5 Highgate Park, who backed up to last, and has now lost as the chalk four times in seven starts.