04/07/2004 11:00PM

Black holes and my Big 3 Pick 3 single


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - So I'm watching the Santa Anita Derby with some friends last week, and since I'm the guy that does this kind of thing for a living they naturally asked the No. 1 question that gets asked at the racetrack: "Who do you like?"

"No one would shock me except Castledale," I replied.

After Castledale won the race, my friends looked at me as they might look at an escapee from an insane asylum who was expounding on space-time relationships.

"Just nod and pretend you're listening," I imagined them whispering to each other. "Keep humoring him until the orderlies come to take him away."

It's just been that kind of going on the Triple Crown trail. Open your mouth, write a few words, express any sort of an opinion, and chances are good you're going to look silly. At this point, anyone who professes to know what they're talking about is apparently delusional, mistaken, or just plain foolish.

All of which means, of course, that Saturday's Big 3 Pick 3 should be ripe for the picking. I'm probably as confused as you, but here are a few things I think I know.

Wood Memorial

One of the problems in gauging 3-year-olds early in the season can be seen by looking at the Quirin-style pace and speed figures I gave Value Plus in his two races at Gulfstream:

* Florida Derby: 112-105

* N1X Allowance: 105-111

Even though the final figures were different, pace handicappers will appreciate that in terms of total energy expenditure these two efforts might be considered roughly the same. In the allowance, Value Plus received a low pace figure and a fast final figure, adding up to 216. In the Florida Derby he took part in a fast pace and his final figure went down, but the two figures totaled 217, virtually the same.

Which race best represents the real Value Plus?

So far it's both, and anyone who professes to know how Value Plus will distribute his energy in the Wood is kidding himself because it's just unknowable at this point.

Something to take from this little discussion, though, is that the Florida Derby pace of 1:11.54 was fast and demanding. Suave's allowance route earlier featured a 1:12.83 split, and they went 1:12.06 in the Skip Away Handicap for older males later on the card.

Moreover, if you watch replays of Florida Derby Day, it's clear trainers' complaints about lack of water on the racetrack were not just the usual he-didn't-like-the-track excuses. The surface looked like a sandy beach for the Florida Derby, but its color and consistency for the Skip Away was noticeably different.

Along with Value Plus, the bulk of the action will go to Master David, who hasn't run in two months, and Eddington, who had the wrong set-up and a tough trip when turned back to a one-turn mile in the Gotham.

The wild card is Tapit, who showed immense talent last fall. It's entirely possible he didn't handle the beachy surface at Gulfstream, while starting for the first time in four months.

Blue Grass

I'm going to single Lion Heart, who ran all the other early speeds into the ground in the fast-paced San Rafael.

Racing over Keeneland's speed-friendly surface, Lion Heart will never have a better opportunity to win a marquee race at nine furlongs.

If he wins the Blue Grass big and heads to Louisville as the favorite, make plans to bet against him in the 10-furlong Kentucky Derby off just two preps this year.

Arkansas Derby

I was thinking about singling Smarty Jones until he drew post 11. His trainer, John Servis, attempted to put a positive spin on things by saying, "The post is fine . . . I'd rather be there than in the first three or four positions."

Through last Sunday, horses from posts 1 through 4 have won 127 of the 221 routes, 57.4 percent. Horses from posts 9 through 12 are a combined 8 for 185, or 4.3 percent.

One of my betting rules that has stood the test of time in pick threes and pick fours is to never put all your eggs in the basket of a poorly drawn favorite, so I will also use Borrego and Purge.

I'll also take at least $1 worth of "all" in the Arkansas Derby, because recent renewals have been won by such hard-to-have bombers as Sir Cherokee ($113.20), Graeme Hall ($38.40), the infamous Valhol ($62.80), and Rockamundo ($218).