02/15/2007 1:00AM

Distance, pace hurdles for Oprah Winney


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Plenty of stakes races go with small fields, so it's nice to see Saturday's Barbara Fritchie and John B. Campbell Breeders' Cup handicaps at Laurel Park drew a lot of horses and few easy throw-outs. Both stakes are part of the Magna 5, so strategies may vary depending on what type of bet is being considered.

Barbara Fritchie overview: In a sign of the times, six of these eight older fillies and mares return from layoffs ranging from 47 to 85 days, and the five that matter - Oprah Winney, Plata, Smart and Fancy, Leah's Secret, and Carmandia - have shown the ability to win off workouts.

At $300,000, the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie is the division's richest and most prestigious target during the dead of winter in the Northeast, so it's not surprising to see five out-of-towners in the mix, along with the local threats Silmaril and Plata.

The start is always important in sprints, particularly so when a contending early speed horse is drawn on the rail. That is the situation for Oprah Winney, who comes off a win in the Interborough where the instructions to Mike Smith were to come out of the gate like it was the All-American Futurity. Oprah Winney has been alert enough to break first in four of her last seven starts, but has never had the rail post. The bigger concern, however, is the Fritchie's seven furlongs seriously pushes Oprah Winney's envelope, and she must deal with pace rivals Dixie Marrone and Great Intentions.

Dixie Marrone, still eligible for a first-level allowance after four failed attempts at that condition, is a good example of a horse with little chance of winning who can still affect the outcome, because she always goes for the lead, and usually runs her first quarter in 22.20 seconds or faster. Oprah Winney was clear through a more leisurely 22.80 quarter when she won the seven-furlong Bouwerie last May, and her opening gambit is usually in the range of 22.40 to 22.80 seconds.

Great Intentions runs best on the lead, and at her absolute best at Belmont Park. She drew advantageously outside the other two speeds and should be plenty fit coming off a successful stretch-out to win the Affectionately; she might find a sweet spot stalking the leaders.

A too-fast pace favors Silmaril, who was sharpened in the six-furlong What a Summer; the improving Smart and Fancy, a game second to Oprah Winney last out; and the closers Leah's Secret and Carmandia, Grade 2 winners last fall who have each trained well in Florida this winter.

If playing multi-race exotics: The decision for me (still working on it) is whether to single a mare such as Silmaril or cast a wider net and include a handful. On Beyers, Silmaril has been a point or two either side of 100 her last four starts at Laurel, which makes her consistently fastest; I just have a tough time standing alone with closers in sprints.

If considering a win bet: I will play the best overlay(s), if any, off the following betting line. Silmaril (4-1), Smart and Fancy (5-1); Great Intentions, Leah's Secret, Carmandia (all 6-1). That line adds up to nearly 80 percentage points, reflecting an opinion the winner would be among those five about 80 percent of the time.

John B. Campbell overview: There's nothing better than a 12-horse field breaking in front of the stands at 1 1/8 miles. This potential cavalry charge promises to be highly entertaining, though trainer Michael Trombetta probably doesn't think so. You have to feel for Trombetta, who took Sweetnorthernsaint down to Gulfstream Park for the Sunshine Millions Classic and watched him get hung out to dry from post 12, and three weeks later gets to saddle Your Bluffing from the same spot. If anyone can overcome the 12-hole at Laurel, it's Your Bluffing, a 14-time winner over the track, but I don't want to bet on it. And if I'm Trombetta, I'm getting myself to the nearest craps table and getting down on boxcars.

Reckless Ways has split four decisions with Your Bluffing, and looms a viable alternative. Easy Red and Future Fantasy are two more locals who figure close as well.

The pacesetters appear vulnerable. Silver Prospector's career-top Beyer (97) three races back was thanks to one of the strongest inside speed biases in recent memory, and Capac may miss the old Keeneland surface more than any Thoroughbred in training.

Last fall in a very salty optional claimer, Bank President had enough early speed to contest the early pace with Latent Heat, subsequent winner of the Grade 1 Malibu. In a highly encouraging change of tactics, he showed the ability to rate just off the pace and win first time over the Laurel track, when a nose better than Mayan King, who came back to win gamely at Aqueduct last week.

At least five of the contenders are deep closers subject to the usual roadblocks and detours found in big fields.

If considering multi-race exotics: You're on your own.

If considering a win bet: My only interest is Bank President, who held on determinedly in his lone 1 1/8-mile start during the early stages at Saratoga last summer, when the track was exceptionally demanding in two-turn routes. That interest grows exponentially at every click above 4-1, and vanishes at anything below.