07/25/2002 12:00AM

Details make big difference at Spa

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LAS VEGAS - What's so special about Saratoga? I'm not talking about the rustic atmosphere, or the ancient tradition, or parking your car under the trees. I mean, what's so special about it from a handicapping point of view? As the meeting begins, it might be worth considering what's so different about Saratoga racing.

The turf

When you have full fields of 10 or 12 grass runners, most of whom have real ability, and you run them around two (or three) turns much sharper than Belmont's sweeping curves - four times a day - well, what you have is a special wagering problem. The best horse often draws an impossible post position, or gets buried inside behind a slow pace, or is forced wide. The best strategy in these races could be finding a logical horse with good position - tactical speed preferred - and then spread around in exactas and trifectas. You have to demand value, and you need to cover yourself for the inordinate influence of racing luck in these crowded, contentious fields.

The babies

Most of the 2-year-old races are unplayable. With so many other opportunities six days a week there's no need to wear yourself out trying to decipher these puzzles. When Pletcher, Bond, Hennig, Lukas, and company all have first-time starters in a race, a handicapping outsider just doesn't have the information necessary to figure it all out. Unless you have something very unusual or a less well-known outfit being cleverly bet, take a pass.

The shippers

The first few days should give some indication of which non-New York outfits are live. An understanding of the Kentucky trainers, and a review of the charts from Churchill Downs, is especially necessary.

But all shippers should be examined carefully. Nothing motivates an outsider more than the glory of shipping in and winning at Saratoga.

These elements define the different character of Saratoga racing. But, more interesting perhaps, is what might be different this year. A few points come to mind.

Belmont biases

There were very few of the traditional dead rails at Belmont this spring and summer. I had some doubts about the rail on May 12, May 27, June 16, June 22, June 29, and July 5 - other players will have their own opinions - but there was no prolonged period of deep inside surfaces as we've come to expect at Belmont in years past. In fact, on most days Belmont, to one degree or another, was very friendly to speed. So there won't be the traditional advantage for front-runners shifting to a more favorable Saratoga surface.

The Bailey watch

Are the talents of Jerry Bailey beginning to slip a bit? His performance at Belmont was not up to his usual high standard. He had an unusual number of horses break slowly, and he didn't often show that genius for placement and positioning that we've come to expect from him. But he rode so infrequently, and he was on so many 1-2 and 3-5 shots, that it was hard to evaluate his riding. Still, we can expect him to focus much more intensively at Saratoga. Since he has won three consecutive riding titles, and seven of the last eight, it's clear that Saratoga is always one of the main goals of Bailey's carefully managed career.

The Pletcher watch

From July 5 to July 17, trainer Todd Pletcher won with only one of his 10 first-time starters. Then he finished the meet with four consecutive first-time winners. This could be a harbinger of things to come. The Pletcher-Velasquez combination could be even more powerful than usual at Saratoga this year.

Who's Niall J. Brennan?

In the final two weeks at Belmont this new trainer won with his first two lifetime starters in New York. On July 10, first-timer Castletown paid $15.20. Layoff runner Esperance paid $36.40 on July 17. Both races were on the turf. Both horses were ridden by John Velazquez. (His third starter, Eagles Hill, ran poorly at six furlongs on July 20.) This should serve as a valuable reminder: Keep a careful eye on any unusual trainer activity early on in the meeting. The earlier you can catch it, the better the price will be. When Esperance was entered, you could have profited in a big way if you just remembered Castletown's debut win for this new trainer only one week earlier.

Saratoga is a special meeting, and requires some special thinking. It can't be approached as just another day at the races. There are new faces to consider, and a different quality of racing. Owners and trainers treat this meeting with special care and attention. Handicappers need to do the same.