08/04/2005 12:00AM

Del Mar betting public needs dose of reality


DEL MAR, Calif. - The betting public will screw things up again this weekend at Del Mar. It is becoming habit.

In graded stakes this summer at Del Mar, the wagering has gone askew. Race after race, good horses are starting at bad prices. In its quest to back a winner at any price, the public has committed a series of blunders. A few examples:

The top miler Castledale, a one-run closer, went favored at 3-2 in the no-pace Grade 1 Eddie Read Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on July 24. Castledale finished fourth.

European import Salsa Brava, running for the first time in nine months and first time ever around a turn, started as the 5-2 second choice in the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap at one mile (two turns) on July 30. Salsa Brava finished last.

Pico Central was dead short July 31 and adding front wraps for his first start since March in Dubai, yet he started as the 5-2 favorite in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Handicap. Pico Central finished last.

Castledale, Salsa Brava, and Pico Central are good horses that may have won regardless of price. They did not, nor did headstrong and distance-challenged Intercontinental, the 6-5 favorite in the Grade 1 John C. Mabee Handicap on July 23. She finished a troubled third.

The only graded-stakes favorite to get it right is Choctaw Nation, $5.40 winner over weak rivals in the low-rated Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on July 23. Unless he improves some eight lengths, Choctaw Nation is hard to endorse on Aug. 21 in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

Oh, sure, Choctaw Nation likes Del Mar, but it is the wrong reason to like him to win a Grade 1. Yet many bettors will like him. That's just the way it is this summer at Del Mar. Favorites are being favored for wrong reasons. It is about to happen again.

Indian Breeze is favored Saturday in the Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes for 2-year-old fillies; Alphabet Kisses is favored Sunday in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch for fillies and mares. Both are established, proven fillies. But their low odds will not reflect their true chances to win.

The 79 Beyer that Indian Breeze earned winning the Landaluce Stakes ties for the top figure in the Sorrento. Trainer Adam Kitchingman recognizes it was not a world-class figure, but said, "I don't think anyone else out there has run big numbers anywhere."

Problem is, the 79 Beyer is well below the 86 par for the Sorrento. The mistake will be made when bettors settle for the top figure without considering its relevance. Speed figures lose value as a handicapping tool when none in the field have run to par.

The tricky interpretation of speed figures earned by 2-year-olds carries risk, because with young horses, improvement can be sudden and stunning. Indian Breeze's increased focus in workouts (she added blinkers for recent works; she will not wear them in the race) is one reason Kitchingman expects a big effort in the Sorrento.

"Two-year-olds are forever changing, growing, getting stronger," he said. "[Indian Breeze] is a lot more focused and more aggressive [with blinkers]. She has changed; I'm hoping she has changed for the better."

She probably has. But her odds will be shorter than they should. Indian Breeze's top figure is less relevant because it is well below par. The reasons she will be favored Saturday are not good reason enough.

The Sorrento may be the right spot to support a filly with attributes other than the top figure. Diplomat Lady won her debut (62 Beyer) despite a compromising trip in which she broke slowly, made a huge middle move, and bumped hard with a rival into the lane. The time was slow (1:05.28), but the form of the race was flattered when runner-up Tiger on the Loose returned to win by a length over next-out winner Golden Silk.

Diplomat Lady has worked super over the Del Mar track for trainer Chris Paasch, and remains more highly regarded than the Paasch-trained Mystery Girl, whose July 23 maiden win earned an 88 Beyer. Bettors skeptical of Diplomat Lady might change opinions after seeing her up close.

"Just take a look at her in the paddock," Paasch said. "You could put her next to a lot of 4-year-olds, and she would be bigger."

A large, dark bay with four white feet, Diplomat Lady can only win if she runs faster than her debut. Paasch said, "This filly has already worked faster than she ran."

While Sorrento favorite Indian Breeze is vulnerable because her figures are below par, Hirsch favorite Alphabet Kisses is vulnerable Sunday because the distance is too far. Her owner-breeder John Harris was asked if the concern is valid.

"That's absolutely a concern," Harris said. "We know she's a good sprinter, and this will be kind of the defining moment on Sunday to see if she wants to go long or not."

Harris and trainer Marty Jones cannot be faulted for running Alphabet Kisses at 1 1/16 miles, particularly since the Hirsch field is coming up light, and the $300,000 purse is double that of the 6 1/2-furlong Rancho Bernardo on Aug. 19.

But based on pure handicapping, the sprint makes more sense for Alphabet Kisses, who repeatedly has proven to be a superior sprinter and a mediocre router. Seven main-track sprints have produced five wins. Four main-track routes have produced one win, and a top Beyer of 89. The Beyer par for the Hirsch is 101.

Alphabet Kisses, a Grade 1 winner at seven furlongs, could win the Hirsch because she is good filly and may control the pace. The issue, however, is whether a top sprinter is worth backing at low odds in a graded stakes around two turns. The answer should be clear.

But clarity has not been easy to come by this summer at Del Mar. And if the betting public commits another parimutuel blunder, then both weekend stakes - the Sorrento on Saturday, and the Hirsch on Sunday - are ripe for upsets.