10/31/2003 1:00AM

Don't trust your eyes to gauge a late move

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When a horse storms home from far back to win a race, his late charge is usually judged to be visually impressive. But handicappers must look beyond the obvious to understand the significance of a race. A check of the fractions can underline the strength of a performance or reveal it as being misleading.

When the pace is ordinary, or slower than par, a winning closer has earned his victory fair and square.

But when the pace of a race collapses - is fast early and slow late - the closers who capitalize are able to run their optimal races, while the tiring front-runners come out of the race with miserable-looking running lines. Handicappers may be misled by these reults.

The pace collapsed in two of the eight Breeders' Cup races. The most obvious example was the Juvenile. Mambo Train carved out a strong 22.31 opening quarter while pressed by Race for Glory, then flew through a hot 45.17 half with Chapel Royal applying heavy pressure. By way of comparison, the pace in the Juvenile Fillies had been 22.88 and 46.82 seconds.

Mambo Train ran out of steam, and fell far back during the next quarter, but Chapel Royal assumed command, and was a length clear through six furlongs in a swift 1:09.80. Mark it down. The pace collapsed following that split. The mile time was 1:37.00, which means that 27.20 seconds were needed to cover the next quarter. That is nearly two full seconds slower than the 25.30 required by the fillies to run that same portion of the race.

Action This Day did not participate in the early action at all, and was perfectly situated by David Flores while last of 12 after the opening quarter. He was still 10th when the leaders caved in, but his well-timed move enabled him to tag them late, and he drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Stablemate Minister Eric was also well-placed by Alex Solis while 10th at the first call, and finished second, five clear of Chapel Royal. Tiger Hunt was gaining late, but finished a nose behind Chapel Royal in fourth.

Who ran the best race? Action This Day impressed many observers, and some of them might even be looking to bet him in the Kentucky Derby futures based on the way he gained ground in this 1 1/16-mile race. But he wasn't going especially fast at the end. He just expended his energy much more evenly than did the staggering leaders. The race was a perfect setup for the closers, who finished first, third, and fourth. Even with the favorable pace scenario, Action This Day earned only a 92 Beyer, which is 6.6 points lower than the average winning Beyer for that race.

The real hero was Chapel Royal. The horses who were 1-2-4 at the first call finished 11-9-12. Chapel Royal ran a huge race to be third early, and third late. I can't tell you how far Chapel Royal will run. But I can predict that if he learns how to ration his speed more sensibly, and stays healthy, Chapel Royal can earn a lot of money before he is done.

The other pace collapse occurred in the Mile. The quick 22.28, 45.40, and 1:09.41 fractions took their toll. Peace Rules, the 3-1 favorite, paid the biggest price when he stopped badly and finished last of 13, beaten by 15 1/2 lengths. The runners who were 3-4-5 at the first call finished 7-11-10. Although Six Perfections was a logical candidate to benefit from the way the race unfolded, and paid just $12.60 in that large field, the pace scenario did boost the chances of the longshots who finished second through sixth at odds of 11-1, 39-1, 32-1, 22-1, and 57-1.

The horse who impressed me most was Soaring Free, a 22-1 longshot who battled hard while pressing the pace from the start, poked his head in front in midstretch, then tired during the last furlong to finish fifth, beaten just 3 1/4 lengths. I'm not sure that he will learn to rate kindly any time soon, since he has been unable to do so in his first 14 starts. But he will be a tiger going seven furlongs and shorter, and he can handle the main track. He might be better served by running with help from the bias on the dirt, rather than running against it on most turf courses.