01/27/2005 1:00AM

Brooke's Halo more than just a slop freak


ARCADIA, Calif. - Whether you love or hate the , one thing is hardly debatable - the Saturday card at Santa Anita is a ripe with opportunity. The fields are full, the handicapping dilemmas are complex, and there is no reason to pass a race.

It starts in the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Oaks, race 3 at Santa Anita.

Was it real, or was it phony? That is the question surrounding the debut romp of Brooke's Halo, whose 93 Beyer is the highest in the Oaks lineup. But a handicapper cannot merely accept a wet-track victory at face value without asking questions.

Brooke's Halo faced only four rivals in her six-length win, and her pedigree suggested she would appreciate the wet surface anyway. Furthermore, the fillies behind Brooke's Halo have done little to validate the race. Runner-up Galaxy Lady earned a 77 Beyer, but in two starts before and one afterward her highest Beyer was 53. So do you discount Brooke's Halo entirely and make her prove her ability on dry land?

Not so fast. After the race, before he purchased the filly for owner Michael House, trainer Jeff Mullins spoke with jockey Gary Boulanger.

"He said she's a freak," Mullins said. "He said, 'I never let her run.' "

Further, Brooke's Halo entered her debut with only three works. Mullins said the filly's previous trainer, Pablo Andrade, told him she was "70 percent fit."

Brooke's Halo shipped to Mullins in early December, but her training stalled because of a fever and a foot bruise. And now? Her belly is gone, Mullins said, adding she has trained "unbelievable" and that he expects a huge effort first start back.

It does not mean Brooke's Halo will beat Coastal Strike. All it means is that in this case, discounting the 93 Beyer earned by Brooke's Halo - because it occurred over a wet track - is to risk throwing out the second most probable winner of the Oaks.

Sprint: Go against Shake You Down

Old gelding sprinters never die; they just fade away. Or in the case of 2004 Sunshine Millions Sprint winner Shake You Down, perhaps he has merely slowed down enough that unforgiving horseplayers are forced to wager against him. At program morning-line odds of 4-1, Shake You Down is the second favorite for the $300,000 Sprint, but the odds are based on form he has not duplicated since last January at Gulfstream Park.

In six subsequent starts, Shake You Down has won twice - in five- and six-horse fields, while earning a top Beyer of 103. It's not enough to win the Sunshine Millions Sprint. And a bettor who can summon the courage to throw out the second favorite might be in position for a trifecta score.

Problem is, 3-1 favorite Areyoutalkintome earned Beyers of 99 and 96 in his last two starts. Maybe he is not fast enough, either. But he probably is, because his two most recent six-furlong races on fast tracks resulted in Beyers of 108 and 109. Perhaps it is good enough, but even so, his advantage is not insurmountable.

One outsider enters with intriguing qualifications - Revello at 12-1. Despite losing a ton of ground racing wide in the Grade 3 El Conejo, Revello earned one of his career-best pace figures while finishing less than four lengths behind Areyoutalkintome. The race indicates that Revello holds his form. He could fall into a better trip this time, tucked right behind a vulnerable Shake You Down and a stuck-on-the-rail Green Team.

When they turn for home, Revello will have his chance. Even if he falls short of victory, Revello can hit the board and key a trifecta that does not include Shake You Down.

Turf: Running Free can sneak into exotics

Grass races such as the $500,000 Turf are not difficult to handicap. And they become even less complicated when three of the 12 entrants tower over the field on the most important handicapping factor in a grass race - recent class.

Star Over the Bay and Silver Tree are recent graded-stakes winners; A to the Z comes off a second-place finish in one of the strongest middle-distance turf stakes in California, the Grade 1 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park. So how to separate the contenders? The stock answer is to separate them on price.

However, when a 15-1 outsider threatens to sneak into the trifecta, no distinction between favorites is necessary. A simple technique is to construct vertical exotics (exactas and trifectas) from the bottom up. Running Free is 15-1 and not qualified to win the Turf after an N2X allowance win. However, he is a dogged customer in the lane, enters in peak form, and figures for a perfect ground-saving trip.

In order for Running Free to hit the board, one of the three favorites will have to misfire. It may happen. Star Over the Bay has not raced in three months; Silver Tree and A to the Z are racing nine furlongs, possibly outside their comfort zones. The wagering strategy is a $2 trifecta using the three favorites to finish first or second, with Running Free in the three-hole. That's a $12 trifecta play. For another $3, a bettor can save in the $1 exacta by playing the three favorites over Running Free.

And what if Running Free wins? Then the handicapping universe has been turned upside down for one race.

No big deal. Because even after race 5, there is plenty of time to get out. After all, the first leg of the Magna 5 will be run at Laurel just 10 minutes after race 5 at Santa Anita is official.