01/01/2004 12:00AM

Don't fight it: Cajun Beat a single

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Quite often, it seems fans and bettors are looking to get into the heads of athletes, believing that is what holds the key to the outcome of a sporting event.

A certain player wants to win because his family and friends are in attendance. A team will be psyched for a game after hearing negative comments from an opposing team. And of course, there is the belief that players might look past one game if there are more important games down the road.

Ultimately, those stories have as much meaning as what an athlete ate for dinner. Talent and matchups, not behind-the-scenes theories, are what separate a winner from a loser in most cases.

Racing is no different. When dealing with stakes horses, horseplayers will often read comments from the connections of those involved and, as a result, might steer away from one horse or another. For example, one trainer might say a race is strictly a prep for his horse. He would like his horse to win, but he doesn't have to win, and so on. Even when trainers do not say that, handicappers are often thinking it themselves.

Many players will immediately try to beat an accomplished stakes horse coming off a layoff, even when evidence does not suggest a loss is in order. No doubt, some will try to beat Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Mr. Prospector Handicap.

Not this handicapper. I plan to single him in Gulfstream's all stakes pick three.

There is no evidence to suggest Cajun Beat will not be ready for his customary top-level race. After winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint on Oct. 25, he was given a brief freshening by trainer Steve Margolis and did not breeze until about four weeks after the race.

Since that time, Cajun Beat has consistently worked every nine to 10 days, following the same pattern Margolis used with success when Cajun Beat won the Kentucky Cup Sprint off a short layoff. Cajun Beat's works have also been sharp.

Two-for-two following layoffs of 45 days or longer, he is a horse that seems most effective when he is given at least a month between races.

He also has history on his side. Of the last 10 Breeders' Cup Sprint winners, six came back to race after their Sprint victory. Their record: 4-1-1. At average odds of even money, gamblers did not get rich playing them, but their strong performances proved they were not vulnerable in their comeback.

Even in a good field that includes Grade 1 winner Gygistar and millionaire Wake at Noon, Cajun Beat will be a short price. His win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint jumps out of the past performances, partly because of the 120 Beyer Speed Figure he earned. (The average winning Beyer for the 10 previous Breeders' Cup Sprint winners was 114.)

With Cajun Beat looking tough as the favorite in the Mr. Prospector, the all-stakes pick three on Saturday looks hittable, although it is unlikely to pay a great deal. My choice is to play a fairly limited ticket so that the cost doesn't cut too much into the payoff.

The Grade 3 Hal's Hope, a 1 1/16-mile dirt race, begins the pick three. Carded a week after the Fred Hooper Handicap at Calder, the race did not attract all of the top nominees. The assigned highweight, Best of the Rest, ran in the Hooper, as did several other notable horses.

Bowman's Band, winner of the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup last year, is the top selection in the Hal's Hope. He earned over $432,000 in 2003 and won over a number of different tracks. Bowman's Band may get a favorable stalking trip behind what should be a quick pace. Puzzlement, Bowman's Band's stablemate, is a deep closer and also should benefit from the pace.

The Mr. Prospector follows the Hal's Hope, and the pick three ends with The Grade 3 Honey Fox at 1 1/16 miles on turf. The weights issued by the Gulfstream racing office illustrate how competitive the race appears. Twenty fillies and mares were weighted between 114 and 117 pounds.

Exiting six consecutive Grade 3 races, Something Ventured possesses the class to be the top choice. Although winless in graded company, she has finished close to such accomplished fillies as Wonder Again, Volga, and Stylish.

She seems best used with Madeira Mist, a Grade 3 winner in Canada, and Coney Kitty, who finished narrowly in front of Something Ventured when third in the Athenia Handicap over a soft course at Aqueduct on Nov. 8.

Miss Terrible, a multiple Group 1 winner in Argentina, is the dark horse. She was fourth in her U.S. bow in the Grade 1 Gamely, but has been raced sparingly this year and faces a considerable amount of pace pressure Saturday.

Wagering strategy

Barring scratches, I will play a small pick three, using Bowman's Band and Puzzlement with Cajun Beat and finishing with Something Ventured, Madeira Mist, and Coney Kitty. I will also play another ticket singling Bowman's Band and Cajun Beat, and using Something Ventured, Madeira Mist, Coney Kitty, and Miss Terrible. These fairly limited tickets will keep the investment relatively low.