05/23/2003 12:00AM

Churchill horses to bet and avoid

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Early speed was dominant at Keeneland, where front-runners won at a 29 percent clip on the main track. But it has been a different story at so far at Churchill Downs, where speed horses have won just 19 percent of the races on the main track.

The difference would be even larger if not for the brief hot streak enjoyed by front-runners at Churchill on May 17 and 18. Throw out the nine winners from those 18 races and the win rate drops to 15 percent, about half the frequency seen at Keeneland.

May 17 is worth special attention, because the sloppy track changed the bias dramatically. It wasn't just the five winners who led at the first call that made the day unusual. There were also three winners who were second early. Those two running positions accounted for 80 percent of the winners on the dirt that day. There was also a winner who bid from third, and another from fourth. If you were fifth or worse early, you were shut out of the winner's circle.

A closer look at the front-running winners on May 17, and the closers who ran respectable races despite the bias, should yield a few horses to bet against, and a few others who will be worth betting on next time out.

Toin and Boin debuted for Ronny Werner in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden special for 2-year-olds. He led from the start, drew off to a three-length edge in midstretch, and scored by 2 1/4. I'm less inclined to try to beat him next time than some of the other front-running winners since he appeared to have plenty of gas left in the tank. Take a long look at Adage, who checked along the rail early, was fourth of six at the first call, then rallied four wide to finish second. That should be a winning move on a day when off-the-pace runners are favored.

Wicked Cool dropped from a 29 3/4-length loss in a $25,000 claiming race to run for $7,500 going 1 1/16 miles in the third race. He also added blinkers. He rebounded nicely with a front-running 6 1/2-length victory as the 7-5 favorite. But Wicked Cool was assisted by the speed bias and by an extremely slow pace of 48.94 seconds and 1:15.09. Watch out for Slaughter and Run, who made an eye-catching move from seventh on the turn and finished second, 6 1/2 lengths clear of the third finisher.

Watch Out Boys was hard to gauge in the fourth, a six-furlong allowance N1X. She was an impressive winner of her debut, but had been on the shelf for a year. Dale Romans had her ready to roll, but the speed bias also helped when she led throughout. Strike Rate, another Romans comebacker, was last of seven, 10 lengths off the pace at the first call. She finished nicely to take third, beaten by 3 3/4. Tab her to improve second time back after the six-month vacation, and with a bias that will probably be kinder to her running style.

I Remember You made a five-wide move turning for home, then flattened out to finish fourth, beaten by 6 3/4 lengths in the fifth, a $30,000 N2L. She's capable of staying closer to the front than she did in this race, and will be dangerous if those tactics are used when she returns.

Missme was last of four, 3 1/2 lengths off the pace, in the sixth, a one-mile $80,000 optional claiming race that had been taken off the turf. She was up to finish second, 2 1/4 lengths behind 6-5 favorite Speed Hunter.

Crafty Rocket grabbed a clear early lead, was challenged, then drew off to win by 5 3/4 lengths in the eighth, a 1 1/16-mile allowance N1X that had been taken off the turf. The speed bias and the slower-than-par fractions of 23.95, 48.45, and 1:13.62 gave him an easy trip. He will be overbet next time, and might be vulnerable. Groovy Chief was six wide into the first turn, and seventh of eight at the first call. He rallied six wide turning for home to check in fourth, six lengths behind the winner, but only a neck and a head behind the second finisher. The horses who were one-two-three at the first call held on to finish one-three-two. Groovy Chief was a 30-1 longshot in this race, and will be a threat in the exotics at attractive odds in a similar spot. A drop into the claiming ranks would make him formidable.

Throne was last of seven, 16 lengths off the pace at the first call in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Dogwood Stakes, made gradual progress, and finished strongly for third, beaten by 3 1/2 lengths. The two horses who beat her were helped by the bias while first and third early. This was an uncharacteristically good performance for Throne, so I can't promise she will match it next time, but it will be worth taking an optimistic view if the price is right.

I'm Howlin closed from seventh to finish second in the 10th, a 1 1/16-mile $12,500 claiming race. He doesn't win often, with a 66-2-7-12 career record, but he missed by only a half-length in this race at 33-1 and will deserve play in the exotics against a similar group. Contested rallied six wide from 10th to finish fourth, beaten by three lengths at 20-1. He does his best work as a closer making an earlier bid than he did in this race, and should contend at overlaid odds vs. similar.