01/15/2009 12:00AM

Cutback should help Madeo close

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When assessing the chances of a late-runner, many horseplayers believe the longer the better. That would appear to stand to reason, given that the closer has more ground to catch the leaders.

In most instances, particularly in routes, I beg to differ. What closers need, more so than distance, is a contested pace, something they're much more likely to receive in short routes.

Most of the time these races draw more front-runners, and therefore more pace. This, in turn, sets the stage for late-runners' success.

With that in mind, Madeo's cutback from 1 1/4 miles on grass in the Hollywood Derby to 1 1/16 miles on Pro-Ride in Saturday's Grade 2 San Fernando figures to aid his chances.

Nearly half of the 12 entries are most comfortable on or near the lead, likely creating an honest pace.

That is exactly what Madeo needs to be at his best. In scoring his lone stakes win in August in the Del Mar Derby, he rallied behind a sharp half-mile in 47.26 seconds in the 1 1/8-mile race on turf.

By way of comparison, he tried to close behind a half-mile in 49.41 seconds when eighth in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby.

Not that the pace was entirely his undoing in the Hollywood Derby - a highly troubled trip in which he was boxed in and trapped behind horses for much of the race was even more to blame.

Being by Mizzen Mast and already proven over synthetic tracks, Madeo can be expected to perform as well over Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface as he did at Del Mar on the grass this summer.

And if the pace unfolds quickly, as expected, look for him to move up a notch with a cutback in distance.

Switch to dirt a question for Bear Now

Millionaire and seven-time stakes winner Bear Now, coming off an eighth-place finish behind Zenyatta in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, is the obvious class of Saturday's $60,000 Truly Bound Handicap at Fair Grounds.

But her apparent class advantage does not assure victory - not with the move from synthetic tracks to Fair Grounds's dirt track.

Although Bear Now upset Octave in the Grade 2 Cotillion Handicap on dirt at Philadelphia Park last September, she has been less consistent on dirt than over synthetic tracks.

A glance at her record illustrates this. She is 8-1-3 in 13 starts on synthetic tracks, compared to 1-0-1 in 7 starts on dirt.

She is 6-5 on the morning line, and I'll take a shot against her with a filly that looks to have a shot at a price: My Heavenly Sign.

After an ordinary beginning to her career at age 2, she blossomed as a 3-year-old last year, winning 5 of 9 starts, capped by victory in the restricted Orleans Stakes at Delta Downs in her final start last year.

My Heavenly Sign faced exclusively 3-year-old opposition in stakes last year, and I believe the public will underestimate her. But if Bear Now regresses with the shift to dirt, that could prove a mistake.

My Heavenly Sign is well drawn on the outside, where she can stalk the pace and go after Bear Now when needed, and she appears to have an affinity for the Fair Grounds surface, having won her lone start there in January of last year.

She also comes off a sharp five-furlong work in 1:01 at Fair Grounds on Jan. 12, the second fastest of 40 at that distance that morning.

Stretch out should help Doc's Friend

Preceding the Truly Bound in the eighth race on the Fair Grounds card, Doc's Friend, a 6-1 outsider on the morning line, merits a wager.

Beaten 16 1/2 lengths in the Sugar Bowl Stakes on Dec. 20, he is dropping into a first-level allowance, a move that should get him back on his game.

But that is not the primary reason I like him. Rather, it is the stretch out in distance from six furlongs to a mile and 40 yards.

The move seems counterintuitive given that all five of his starts have come sprinting and that he faded from third to 10th in the Sugar Bowl.

I expect some bettors will avoid him for that reason. Not me.

His Sugar Bowl failure did not prove he lacked stamina. It simply proved he was not up to keeping up in a fast-paced sprint stakes race.

These are easier allowance horses, and the pace of this race promises to unfold slower than the Sugar Bowl.

From the outside post, jockey Gabriel Saez can sit patiently on Doc's Friend, allowing him to settle into a pace-pressuring position if another horse and rider are intent on the lead, or assuming the lead himself. Either way, a good trip in a surprisingly paceless field appears in order.