07/31/2002 11:00PM

Early answer to May question: Vindication

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DEL MAR, Calif. - It is still early in the season. The Del Mar meet will be only one-fifth over Saturday, leaving horseplayers plenty of time to ponder the following uncertainties.

Question: Did the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner - a 2-year-old colt named Vindication - make his debut last Saturday?

Answer: With still nine months to the Derby, the assertion might sound absurd. This year, it is not so far-fetched. Vindication's grand debut in a six-furlong race was one of the most impressive efforts by a 2-year-old maiden in recent Del Mar seasons. He won by 5 1/2 lengths without being asked, and has all the tools to run long. Sired by Seattle Slew and trained by Bob Baffert, he cost $2.1 million as a yearling.

"When you spend that much, you're buying pedigree," Baffert said.

Vindication has an effortless stride, no wasted motion, and the aplomb of a colt who knows he is good. It is difficult enough to pick the Derby winner on race day, much less nine months out. But know this: Vindication has future superstar written all over him.

Question: Are favorites winning fewer stakes than expected?

Answer: Although favorites won two of the first eight stakes at Del Mar, it does seem like the chalk is underperforming. Mountain Rage (6-5) was dead short when he finished third in the Oceanside; Surya (8-5) was terribly overhyped prior to finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Ramona; and Beat Hollow (1-2) suffered an impossible trip when he finished second in the Grade 1 Eddie Read.

Question: Will the hottest sprinter in California ever get a softer trip than he did winning the Grade 2 Bing Crosby Handicap?

Answer: Not likely. When Disturbingthepeace pressed the opening quarter in a dawdling 22.13 in the six-furlong Bing Crosby, the race was pretty much over. Disturbingthepeace has now won the last two graded sprint stakes in California, and it remains uncertain whether he can cope with serious heat.

Question: Do handicapping angles supersede handicapping fundamentals?

Answer: Of course not. When the filly Little Treasure makes her United States debut Saturday in the Grade 2 San Clemente Handicap, she will be favored based on strong European form. She also will have a powerful Del Mar angle in her favor - her last start was in France. The France-Del Mar angle has produced a 38 percent profit over the past 16 meets, winning at 20 percent. French import Dream Machine was best while finishing second in the opening-day Oceanside; French import Lugny was a live longshot in the Wickerr, which was to be run Friday.

Question: Are trainer-jockey combinations from past seasons still relevant?

Answer: Perhaps not. The jockey colony has undergone tumultuous change the past year. Mike Smith has emerged as a leading Del Mar rider and Pat Valenzuela has reestablished himself as the circuit's top overall rider. Two years ago, neither Smith nor Valenzuela rode a winner at Del Mar. Add resurgent Corey Nakatani to the camp, and suddenly it's a whole new ballgame among jockeys.

Question: Has the term "track bias" become obsolete at Del Mar?

Answer: Seems like it. After seven days of bias-free racing, the only trend is that the best horses are winning. The universal bias toward speed - a quality of California racing - has been the only real inclination. On turf, anything goes.

Question: Do speed figures lead to winners, or underlays?

Answer: Both. Going into the Graduation Stakes on Wednesday, 6-5 favorite Jury Box was coming off a 93 Beyer Speed Figure, while 2-1 second choice Icecoldbeeratreds had a 73. The low-figure horse won by 3 1/2 lengths, serving a reminder there is more to handicapping than finding the top number.

Question: Will first-crop stallion Swiss Yodeler have another winner this year?

Answer: Probably. Nevertheless, through Wednesday it had been six weeks (since June 16) since an offspring of early-season phenom Swiss Yodeler had won a race in Southern California.

Question: Did the runner-up finish by Golden Apples in the Ramona set her up for a potential upset of Astra in the Beverly D on Aug. 17?

Answer: Yes. A final furlong in 10-and-change proved that Golden Apples is back. Though unable to run down Affluent in the Ramona, the effort reestablished Golden Apples as one of the two best female turf runners in the country. Who to bet in the Beverly D? The higher price.

Question: Is there a method to winning money in the Breeders' Cup Future Wager?

Answer: Yes. But that is a subject for next week, when the second round of the BC Future Wager is offered.