03/22/2009 11:00PM

Different pace, same one-two finish

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Value-seeking handicappers should always look at the horses who finished second or third behind the winner of a race if they battle each other again next time out. If you can find a legitimate reason to believe that the horse who lost actually ran a better race than the winner, you will have a chance to cash a bet on that horse at overlaid odds.

Criticism is the likely favorite in Sunday's Grade 3 Orchid Stakes, run at 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Gulfstream Park. She defeated Grade 3 runners in each of her last two races, and looked especially strong in her last victory. Jockey Edgar Prado did a masterful job of slowing the pace to a crawl while Criticism led throughout in The Very One Stakes. The quarter-mile splits in that race were 24.94 seconds, 26.30, and 26.06 through the first six furlongs. Prado gave Criticism's opponents no chance to catch up through the last five furlongs of that 1 3/8-mile race when she sprinted away from them in quarter-miles run in 23.73 and 22.69, with a final furlong run in a snappy 11.51. She wasn't asked for her best down the stretch, and finished with gas left in the tank.

Dress Rehearsal is the filly who finished second, 2 1/2 lengths behind Criticism in The Very One, and she appears to be the primary threat to that rival in the Orchid. Can she beat Criticism at a square price this time?

Perhaps, depending on how you interpret Criticism's win. Any horse who wins a race with help from a comfortable trip is typically downgraded by handicappers. And to the extent that Criticism was helped by the slow early pace, Dress Rehearsal was hindered similarly while racing in eighth, then sixth place in the 13-horse field during those slow splits.

In Dress Rehearsal's favor, the pace scenario figures to be different in the rematch. Julia Tuttle didn't compete in The Very One, but she figures to be a significant pace factor in the Orchid. She led at the first call in seven of her last eight races. And she didn't stop at the first call. Looking at the first three calls of those eight races, she led in 18 of the 24. So it is unlikely that Criticism will be able to steal this race on the lead. In fact, looking at their fractions, it appears that Julia Tuttle is likely to be the early leader.

With these new circumstances in mind, and with Dress Rehearsal likely to offer higher odds than Criticism, I can understand why some value-seeking bettors will be eager to switch to Dress Rehearsal in the Orchid. But there are a couple of other things to consider before coming to a final decision.

If Criticism were a need-to-lead front-runner, the impact of Julia Tuttle's early speed might very well be the deciding factor in the Orchid. But Criticism doesn't need the early lead. She stalked the leaders from easy striking position while rating between two and four lengths off the pace, took the lead in midstretch, then edged away to win the 1 1/2-mile Long Island Handicap by a length two races ago.

I'm not recommending that Criticism should drop back to as far as fourth place in the Orchid, as she did in the Long Island Handicap, but I believe it would be a very good idea for her to let Julia Tuttle set the pace, while tracking that rival comfortably in second. Julia Tuttle tired late and lost ground, running position, or both, from the stretch call to the finish in each of her last eight races. Those races were run at shorter distances in the range of a mile to 1 1/8 miles, so there is no reason to expect her to like the 1 1/2 miles she will have to run in the Orchid. Factor in the class jump, and the mild Beyers she earned in most of her recent races, and it seems likely that Julia Tuttle will tire and come back to Criticism on her own. Criticism can simply inherit the lead.

The other angle to consider is the way The Very One played out visually. Although Criticism's 2 1/2-length margin of victory was unexceptional, Dress Rehearsal was fully extended after she found running room at the top of the stretch, but never looked like a threat to Criticism, who finished with energy in reserve.

I'm always looking for betting value, but there's no need to force a selection on a horse at longer odds when the favorite looks strong. I will take Criticism to win, with a cold exacta using Dress Rehearsal for second.