01/07/2004 12:00AM

Eastern diehard becomes a convert


BOSTON - For more than three decades I've managed to avoid it. I had always been frightened off by stories of star players who went west and returned discouraged and defeated. Anyway, there were always more than enough tracks to keep me occupied back here east of the Mississippi. So it just didn't seem wise to risk it.

But it's a new year, the winter is turning miserable up here in the Northeast, and I'm rather tired of the same old Gulfstream. I no longer want to be saddled with the excessive amount of work that such a complicated meeting requires. So, this winter I'm going to do it. I'm going west. (Not physically, only by computer). I'm finally going to make the effort to learn something about the game in Southern California.

Some players warn that, for horseplayers used to East Coast racing, the left coast can be a dangerously different world. Others say that handicapping is basically the same everywhere. After a few minor adjustments, every race track is just like every other.

What's the truth? More specifically, when you're analyzing the Beyer Speed Figures, do they behave the same way at Santa Anita as they do at Belmont or Turfway or Gulfstream? Can you use them in the same ways as you use them back East?

Since the traditional opening of Santa Anita on Dec. 26 the results have been encouraging.

Reality vs. reputation

Island Fashion ran a Beyer Figure of 101 in last summer's Alabama at Saratoga. Although she benefited from a perfect trip, that 101 Beyer fit very well in the La Brea at Santa Anita on Dec. 27. Island Fashion had returned to the races with a strong, late-closing effort on the turf at Hollywood on Nov. 30 (101 Beyer). With more maturity, she could certainly improve substantially on her Alabama figure. But, despite these strong recommendations, the California public still fell for the big reputation horse - Elloluv - making her the huge favorite at 6-5. While there were other contenders in the race (Randaroo, Buffythecenterfold, Gone Exclusive), Island Fashion was big value at 9-1.

The suspect Elloluv finished up the track. Island Fashion won by six, paying $20.80. The exacta with Randaroo paid $153 (that's for $2, not the perverse $1 payoffs put up by Santa Anita). It was a most reassuring result. Even in California, it seemed, you could challenge undeserving favorites and overbet reputation horses - and the value was there if you could beat them.

Top figures

The performance of top-figure Beyers has been very solid. That trend peaked on Dec. 31 when six out of nine races were won by the top Beyer. Some of these seemingly obvious horses actually turned out to be good value, as bettors were blinded by the presence of Baffert-trained underachievers or Harty-trained layoff runners. For example, in the second race on New Year's Eve, a filly named Garden Whimsy looked like a very strong top-Beyer play at 3-1. And a small spread underneath in the exacta brought in a 6-1 shot for the place. Exacta: $41.60.

The same precise strategy produced a $35.60 return in the fourth race. This simplest of approaches triumphed again in the sixth race with an exacta combining a 5-1 winner and a 9-1 second horse. Exacta: $98.20. In this case the public had overbet another contender because it was trained by the high-percentage "super trainer" Jeff Mullins.

Turning chalk into cash

The sixth race on Dec. 29 looked like a simple two-horse affair. Wimbledon and Spellbinder had a big edge in Beyer Figures. They finished one-two, with the exacta paying a decent $15.60. But the big value was in the trifecta, where the third-highest figure, Plenty of Heat, filled out a $111.60 winning combination. Since Plenty of Heat had earned that Beyer in a sprint and looked a bit questionable at one mile, you couldn't stand alone in the third slot, but even a sensible spread turned up big value.

Cycling to a fast start

The cycle pattern of Beyer Figures is always worth searching to uncover. Some of these horses had run poorly at Santa Anita, while others had run well but just hadn't made it all the way. (For example, on Jan. 2 there were three cyclers at 6-1 or better who finished second - setting up huge payoffs for those with the imagination or good fortune to hook them up with the longshots that dominated that day.) But on day one of the meeting, Dec. 26, in the seventh race, the perfect cycling set-up jumped off the page. Back on Oct. 9, Early Snow had dueled through the entire mile trip to earn a solid Beyer of 88. He dropped down to a 71 in his next start, and then improved to an 83 last time out on Nov. 21 while chasing the pace. Now he was back at one mile, and with good speed from the beneficial inside post. If he could improve again to an 88 or even higher he would be very tough to beat. The front-runners had been doing extremely well all day, so his position gave him an additional advantage. Early Snow wired the field at odds of 6-1.

So, after two weeks, I've tentatively joined the racing-is-the-same-everywhere camp. A few minor adjustments are necessary, of course. Front-runners are generally stronger at Santa Anita than elsewhere, and you have to be more careful in evaluating the many layoff runners. Perhaps you need to bet even more selectively in Southern California, given the slim pickings and the short fields on many cards. I find the turf races still to be a bit of a mystery (so far I've completely avoided the peculiar downhill 6 1/2-furlong grass races). So, some elements are indeed different out West. But once you've made these adjustments, it looks very much like handicapping anywhere else. At least so far.