06/13/2002 12:00AM

Contrary to popular belief

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The following description pertains to the first two betting choices in a Grade 2 stakes race for 3-year-olds. Which do you prefer?

Horse A: Three wins in four lifetime starts. Won an ungraded $75,000 stakes by 10 lengths last time out, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105.

Horse B: Two wins from three lifetime starts. Won an entry-level allowance race by five lengths last time out, 98 Beyer.

Looks like a no-brainer. Horse A ran faster and he did so in tougher company, so he surely must have been favored over Horse B, right?

Wrong, Beyer breath! Horse A in this example was Gygistar, who won last Saturday's Grade 2 Riva Ridge by 4 1/2 lengths and paid $10.20. Horse B was Yankee Gentleman, who was bet to 6-5 favoritism for his stakes debut and finished fourth.

The popular notion that there is no value in betting the top-figure horses these days is pure poppycock. The fact of the matter is that they win and pay generous prices every day at racetracks across the nation.

It's all a matter of perception. Yankee Gentleman was 6-5 because his trainer is Bill Mott and he was ridden by Jerry Bailey, and they are horse racing's closest thing to household names.

Sometimes, though, even the presence of name-brand connections isn't enough to attract the crowd to a big-figure contender.

Take a look at this recent scenario: A horse comes off a wire-to-wire victory by six lengths, in which he finished strongly and earned a 112 Beyer. After the race he was purchased privately and turned over to Bob Baffert, and he now meets a field where the next-best last-out Beyer is only a 104. Such a horse must have been among the favorites in that situation, agreed?

The horse was War Emblem, the race was the Kentucky Derby, and the win mutuel was $43.

In this case, handicappers (myself included) were so locked in to anticipating a killer pace that the overriding impulse was to dismiss the chances of any horse with front-running speed, even though we all know early speed wins more than its fair share day in and day out.

There's always a "logical" reason for passing up these figure plays, but the natural tendency is to overthink these things.

Besides Gygistar, there were other instances where good-figure horses outran their odds on Belmont Stakes Day:

In the spill-marred WNBC that claimed the life of Gygistar's half-sister, Pleasant County, the horse with the best last-out Beyer was Too Scarlet (91). Next-best was Ellie's Moment (90). Too Scarlet won at $18.40, and 2-1 favorite Ellie's Moment completed a cold Beyer exacta worth $68.50. Why was Too Scarlet, who now has an exemplary record of seven wins and two runner-up finishes from nine starts, so lightly regarded? Probably because she hadn't run in five months, and her trainer is the little known but thoroughly capable Kristina Dupps.

Still scratching your head and wondering how Sarava ($142.50) became the longest-priced winner in 134 runnings of the Belmont Stakes? As implausible as the result seemed immediately afterward, consider that Sarava's last out Beyer of 99 for winning the Sir Barton was identical to Sunday Break's Peter Pan fig, and Sunday Break made everyone's short list of contenders for an in-the-money finish.

Swept Overboard at $24.60 in the Met Mile is another prominent recent big-figure winner ripped from today's headlines. Did his daylight Met score with a 122 Beyer come as a surprise? It shouldn't have because he had run such a figure last fall, and he had also run a 116 at Belmont when on a dead rail in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In this case there could have been doubts about Swept Overboard's ability to stretch out to one mile, but at 11-1 you can take your chances.

Taking calculated risks is what it comes down to. When top-figure horses are offered at low odds, play devil's advocate and look for reasons why they might not run as well today. But when horses who can "do the fig" are ignored by the crowd for one reason or another, it can be a lucrative practice to give them the benefit of the doubt.