09/23/2004 12:00AM

Off-the-board finishers deserve a closer look

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I loathe state fairs. If the food alone doesn't give me indigestion, the mere thought of getting on a tilt-o-whirl does. But my disdain for fairs doesn't extend to fair meets for equine athletes. There, I'm in my element.

Fair tracks, such as those in Arizona in Sonoita and Flagstaff, are a blast. They also provide good betting opportunities because so many skilled handicappers skip such meets in favor of high-profile tracks.

Here in Kentucky, there are no fair meets for Thoroughbreds. There is something better: Kentucky Downs, an all-turf track located a stone's throw from the Tennessee border in Franklin, Ky. Forty miles from Nashville, Tenn., and about 20 from Bowling Green, Ky., it is in the middle of nowhere.

The track, which holds its Kentucky Cup Turf Festival on Saturday, is seemingly as out of place as the baseball field in the movie "Field of Dreams," only instead of corn fields beyond the outfield, there is a truck stop 100 yards from the backstretch. Between races the gate crew sometimes fishes in the infield lake.

I like Kentucky Downs, not for the fish in the lake, but for the whoppers horseplayers can land by betting the races there. From the track's first three days of racing, 18 of its 21 races had 11 or more starters, which created some sizable payoffs. On Monday, three horses paid $62 or more to win.

There are only six days of racing there per year, so most of the horses have little experience over the 1 5/16-mile European-style course. Bettors, too, have little experience at playing its races. Because the course is so distinctive - with its clay base, hills, and sweeping turns - the betting public tends to view those who have run well over the course as having an advantage.

Surprisingly, these horses have not done as well this meet as bettors have anticipated. Checking the first three days of racing, 10 horses raced at Kentucky Downs after having won a race over the course during one of its prior meets. One horse won, paying $10.20, and another ran third. Eight were off the board.

Combining these course winners with starters that had run second or third in prior starts at Kentucky Downs increased the sample to 20 starters. Of those, 2 won, 2 ran second, and 3 finished third. Thirteen were off the board. A $2 wager on each would have yielded an average return of $1.13.

Those who didn't run so well over the course won as many races and at much better prices. Fifteen horses have run this meet after having been out of the top three in any prior race at Kentucky Downs. Two won, paying $39.80 and $77.60, and two more hit the board.

It seems the public is giving too much credit to those who ran well and wrongfully dismissing those that were unplaced. (All 15 starters who had been unplaced went off at odds of 10-1 or more). That is a mistake because these races, run a year or more ago, are largely insignificant relative to current form.

A horse might have run fifth at Kentucky Downs last year, not because it disliked the course, but because there were four others faster than him in that race. That should not make him a toss out. He might fit better in the current spot.

With the Kentucky Cup Turf Festival taking place Saturday, there are numerous horses running with experience over the course, including Rochester, winner of the past two Kentucky Cup Turfs. The leading money earner in Kentucky Downs history, Rochester will likely be overplayed in the Turf off his 2-for-2 Kentucky Downs record.

Art Variety and Quest Star may also be overplayed. Art Variety actually finished in front of Rochester and Quest Star in the big race last year, but was disqualified by the stewards and placed third for interference.

My choice is Sabiango, winner of the Grade 1 Charlie Whittingham earlier in the year. He should rebound after fading to 11th in the Arlington Million in his last race.

Other selections in the Kentucky Cup Turf Festival races include Sand Springs in the Ladies, Mighty Beau in the Turf Dash, and Missme in the Mile.

I also plan to play some small tickets Saturday on horses that had gone unplaced in prior Kentucky Downs starts. They are not high-percentage plays, but they will likely start as overlays with off-the-board local finishes clouding their records. These include Maxamax and Love and Honor in the third; King of Speed in the ninth, the Mile; and Regale in the 12th, the Ladies.