07/13/2005 11:00PM

Big-figure 2-year-olds frequently regress

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It could be the biggest cinch exacta of the season, when Bashert and What a Song - the fastest 2-year-olds of the Hollywood Park meet - collide Saturday in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile.

Like most 2-year-old sprint stakes, the six-furlong Juvenile is relatively easy to handicap because it's all about speed. Bashert won his second start by five lengths with a 99 Beyer Speed Figure; What a Song won his debut by 3 1/2 lengths with a 93.

No one else in the Juvenile field is close. None of the others has run anything close to par - over the past 13 years the median Beyer for the Hollywood Juvenile winner is 90. So on Saturday, it's a match race, right?

Well, maybe. Speed figures are reliable predictors of 2-year-old sprint stakes, particularly one as formful as the Juvenile - $8 is the high win payoff the past 13 years, and nine of the last 13 winners were odds-on. In races with favorites that already have matched or exceeded par, upsets are less likely.

Yet while handicapping is based on horses reproducing recent efforts, that does not always happen with 2-year-olds. Sometimes they run too fast for their own good. Except with truly gifted racehorses such as 2001 Juvenile winner Came Home, a huge speed figure earned in spring and summer at Hollywood Park can be followed by a step backward.

In a typical spring meet at Hollywood, only a handful of 2-year-olds earn Beyer Figures of 90 or higher. Some of those - including Came Home, Tempera, Golden Ballet, and Squirtle Squirt - develop into important Grade 1 winners.

Over the past six summers, however, more than three-quarters of the 2-year-olds that soared past a 90 Beyer went backward in their next start. And not by just a little bit - 22 of the 29 that regressed did so by an average of about 10 points.

The flameouts of 2004 were numerous. Diligent Prospect rolled to a 102 Beyer last May 30, and subsequently was sidelined for seven months. When he finally returned Dec. 30, he regressed to 85, won anyway, and has not raced since.

My Miss Storm Cat won her debut last May 29 with a 99. She then lost at odds-on with an 87, and has not raced since. Inspiring won her debut last July 5 with a 91, regressed to 78 next out while winning anyway, then was defeated in both starts afterward.

A 2-year-old that runs fast enough to earn a 90 Beyer in spring has placed its developing body under considerable stress. It can lead to a relatively minor ailment such as bucked shins, or it can tear them completely apart. Half the Hollywood 2-year-olds since 2000 that earned a 90-plus Beyer Figure never ran that fast again.

Often when a 2-year-old earns a big figure, the horse needs time to recover. One-third of Hollywood juveniles since 2000 that earned a 90-plus Beyer Figure did not race again for at least 45 days. Some needed considerably more time.

I'll Prey for You (91) and Swiss Silver (90) both required nine months off following high-figure efforts last summer. Crowned Dancer (92) won the 2002 Juvenile, and was off seven months; September Secret (99) was off eight months after a maiden win; Fonz's (95) was off more than five months after winning a 2001 stakes.

The regression factor among 2-year-olds stretches across the country. Since the start of the 2000 spring meet at Belmont Park, 21 of 23 2-year-olds that earned Beyer Figures of 90 or more went backward next out. Seven won anyway, including Ashado (93 to 81) and City Zip (95 to 90).

Other high-figure Belmont 2-year-olds who made a name for themselves were Proud Citizen (93 to 96) and Yonaguska (97 to 81). Who will it be this year? Six colts and a filly already have earned 90-plus Beyers this spring at Belmont. They are Mr Sam I Am (97), Classic Pack (97), Travelin Leroy (95), Diabolical (91), Henny Hughes (90), Moon's Halo (90), and the filly Sensation (93).

Based purely on high-figure maiden wins, the strength of the 2-year-old crop is in the East. At Hollywood, Bashert and What a Song are the only 2-year-olds this spring to exceed 90.

The timing of the Juvenile favors Bashert, who enters off a 41-day layoff; What a Song enters off a 28-day break. Bashert further benefits from having had an additional race. His high-figure maiden win came in his second career start; What a Song has raced only once.

Based on the 75 percent probability of regression, it is possible that Bashert or What a Song could finish out of the top two.

Or maybe the Juvenile exacta is a big, fat cinch and a fitting prelude to the unfolding careers of two future stars.

Bashert and What a Song could both become important stakes winners, unless of course, their stars are already flaming out because they ran too fast too soon.