01/17/2002 12:00AM

Dave's excellent adventures in Florida


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - "Dave is not a very good shipper."

That's what people would probably say if I were a horse, and deservedly so judging from the past performances.

There are usually extenuating circumstances, and these misadventures date back to Christmas week of 1989 when I drove through Jacksonville, or tried to, at exactly the same time a freakish ice storm brought that city to a complete standstill. It was two full days before the bridges thawed out and the roads became passable enough to continue on south.

My wardrobe consisted mostly of tank tops, shorts, and sandals, and ever since then the term "Bon voyage" makes my toes go numb.

Then there was Handicapping Expo 2000 in Las Vegas. Everything was fine until shortly before my scheduled departure Sunday afternoon, when I was in the Paris Hotel racebook and noticed you couldn't see Aqueduct's races at all due to dense fog brought on by unseasonably warm February weather.

Which meant visibility was also nil right across the street at socked-in JFK Airport. Which meant no flights into New York. Which meant sleeping on a shoeshine chair at McCarran Airport, or trying to, despite non-stop bells and whistles from the one-armed bandits that entertained other stranded travelers.

My latest trip out of town was for an opening-day "Bet With The Best" book signing at Gulfstream Park just a couple weeks ago. In terms of my ability to act as a human lightning rod for bad weather, nothing much seemed to have changed.

I was originally supposed to leave from MacArthur Airport (conveniently located just 10-15 minutes from my neck of the woods), in order to catch a connecting flight in Atlanta.

Naturally, my travel plans caused another atmospheric disturbance in The Force and triggered a snowstorm in the Southeast, where everything comes to a halt the minute the first flake touches the tarmac.

Needless to say my flight to Atlanta was canceled, which effectively left me up the creek without a paddle. Unless, that is, I could somehow get re-booked onto the first flight out of LaGuardia the next morning, which would get me to Gulfstream in the nick of time.

To give you an idea of my hastily adjusted itinerary, let's look at one of those hypothetical math problems they use to test the wits of elementary school students:

"If Dave has to drive 50 miles to the airport, and he has to check in to have his shoes searched two hours beforehand, and his flight leaves at 6:45 in the morning, what time does he have to get out of bed?"

A) Too darn early

B) Might as well stay up

C) 3:30 a.m.

D) All of the above

Extra credit: What is the wind-chill factor at 5 a.m. in the airport parking lot when it is still pitch-dark?

Answer key: "D" and "Rather bracing."

This Saturday, I will be back at Gulfstream for the Holy Bull card and another book-signing, this time with Tom Brohamer, a pioneer in his field who has forgotten more about the intricacies of pace handicapping than most of us will ever know.

And unlike opening day, when it was unseasonably chilly in south Florida and we were all flying in the dark and guessing about how the main track and the turf course would play, players who keep track profiles are now armed with enough data to make some informed decisions.

There were three two-turn routes run on a tiring, drying-out "good" track opening day and the emphasis was on stamina and late speed. This is in stark contrast to the track's long-term speed-favoring tendencies.

Sure enough, things have returned to normal. From Day Two forward, 14 of the next 35 routes (40 percent) were won by the pace-call (six-furlong) leader. For handicapping purposes, the ability to stay within 2 1/2 lengths of the leader at the pace call seems to be a logical cut-off point for keeping horses in the mix, because 32 of 35 route winners (91 percent) fit that description.

But on the Gulfstream turf course handicappers need to do a complete about-face, because closers have ruled. Not one - zero, zip, nada - of the first 15 grass races at the meet were won by the pace-call leader. Just six winners, 40 percent, were within 2 1/2 lengths at the pace call, and nine winners, 60 percent, made up deficits of three lengths or more in the final stages.

So on Saturday at Gulfstream I will be looking for horses with tactical speed on dirt and closers with the best finishing kick on turf. We will see whether this type of an approach pays off, but win or lose, they say getting there is half the fun.

If they only knew.