09/22/2004 11:00PM

Chalk hard to beat - except on turf


ELMONT, N.Y. - Considering the obstacles at Saratoga, which included wet weather, shippers, maiden dashes replete with 2-year-old first-time starters, and steeplechase races, the fact that favorites won at 39 percent for the six-week meet is mind-boggling and speaks of how sophisticated New York's wagering clientele has become.

Nearly a third of the way through Belmont's fall meet, John Q. Public has continued to pinpoint the winner with precision. Through nine days of the 33-day session, the public choice had won 30 of 85 races, a 35 percent hit rate that was higher until the favorites went 1 for 9 on Wednesday.

Handicappers can still find value provided they know where to look, and so far there have been only two such place: The Widener turf and the inner turf. Here is the notable breakdown:

* Favorites on dirt: 27 for 63 (42.8 percent).

* Favorites on turf: 3 for 22 (13.6 percent).

Favorites are winning more than three times as often on the main track. On turf, double-digit mutuels have been par for the courses: 13 of the 22 winners paid $10 or more.

Players looking for a winning strategy for multi-race exotic wagers are on the right track if they do the following: Spread in the turf races, where average field size has been 9.6 starters per race, and look for those reliable low-priced keys on dirt.

The most reliable chalk subset on dirt has been the seven graded stakes, which averaged six runners per race, thanks in part to the sad fact that training horses up to the Breeders' Cup has become so fashionable.

Five of these black-type races were won by the favorite, and four of those chalks - Stellar Jayne, Ghostzapper, Sense of Style, and Sightseek - paid $3 or less. One other graded stakes on dirt, the Jerome in the slop, went to lone speed Teton Forest, who paid $6.60 as the second choice.

Training trends

Of course, Bobby Frankel is responsible for two of the most minuscule stakes mutuels, Sightseek and Ghostzapper. Going into Thursday's card, he was tied for the top spot in the standings with Richard Dutrow Jr., thanks in part to such good-priced winners as Mass Media ($27.80), Melhor Ainda ($17.20), and Watchem Smokey ($14.60).

It sometimes pays to give Frankel-trained runners the benefit of the doubt if they have been inactive and the price is square. Mass Media had run only twice this year; Melhor Ainda was a first-time-starting juvenile filly going a mile on the Widener turf; and Watchem Smokey had not been out since falling over a rival in a stakes sprint at Santa Anita in March.

Dutrow's runners usually attract lots of betting support, even ones like Unbridled Vision ($7.60), who had been away since last October when he raced up close to the early pace, dropped back to last on the turn, and circled the field to get up in time.

Another Dutrow specialty is the quick turnaround in 1-7 days. Loving ($4.40) was one of the meet's three winning grass favorites, four days after winning a restricted stakes at Delaware Park. Infinite Glory ($8.70), a winner first time off the claim by Dutrow on Sept. 15, returned four days later while raised in class and was beaten a head at 6-1.

Trainer George Weaver, a former assistant to Todd Pletcher, turned heads here a year ago nearly to the day when he swept divisions of a Widener turf mile for 2-year-olds with My Amandari ($38.20) and Really American ($121). Those who remembered were not shocked to see Weaver saddle first-time starters Flamingo Fan ($8.50) and Drum Major ($10.40) on turf at this meet. Recall as well that the Weaver-trained Christine's Outlaw won the one-mile Poker Handicap at $29.60 here in July.

Nick Zito, fresh off his third straight 10-win Saratoga meet, annually wins in the fall with 2-year-olds stretching to a mile. This year has been no different: Sun King ($6.30) and In the Gold ($3.90) were both second-time starters stretching out to that distance and getting a rider switch to Javier Castellano. Father Weist ($3.20) is another Zito-trained juvenile to win here second out, though only stretching out to 6 1/2 furlongs.

Track trends

Sept. 10: The rail was golden and the main track favored speed, but since then the general trend has beneficial to stalkers and closers positioned toward the outside.

Sept. 11: Seven of the day's nine dirt winners raced well-removed from the rail, the highest-profile race being the Woodward, in which Saint Liam floated Ghostzapper halfway to the grandstand.

Sept. 12: A very strong day for wide pressers, notably the aforementioned Mass Media, who raced widest of all and won a $60,000 overnight stakes as the longest shot on the board.

Sept. 15: Deep closers won four of five dirt races. The exception was Rize ($3.30), the remarkable 8-year-old gelding who upped his record to 7 for 11 this year, after prompting a very slow pace.

Sept. 17: Outside posts and paths had a big edge. The lone winner from an inside post was Unbridled Vision, a Dutrow-trained returnee who was up close from the rail and didn't get into high gear until moving to the far outside approaching the stretch.