06/15/2004 12:00AM

Examine pace before shouting 'bias'


Drainage issues. Excess watering. Inadequate watering. Weather. For tracks near the shorelines, there are even lunar tides. All have been mentioned as possible reasons for track biases, specifically, speed-favoring tracks.

But what about pace?

A look at the expected pace scenario in each race is perhaps the most overlooked method of assessing whether a bias existed or not. It's basic handicapping: A field of eight with four confirmed speeds is very likely to produce an off-the-pace winner; a group of plodders are apt to spin their wheels if caught behind a controlled pace set by an uncontested front-runner. And, for the purposes of handicapping, a paceless field creates an inherent speed bias, if only for a race. Occasionally, an entire card of races features situations where speed types or closers have an edge. Why blame it on the moon?

A simple perusal of the result charts of the June 6 card at Monmouth Park might give the impression that the track itself favored speed. After all, there were 10 races, and eight of them were won by runners either on the lead or within a length of the pacesetter after a half-mile.

As it turned out, several of the races were completely lacking speed while others featured a couple of potential pacesetters but lacked one-dimensional speedsters, the type which make plotting the pace scenario easy. For example, the third race on the card, an optional claiming sprint, was especially tough to figure in terms of race flow, and it was no surprise that it was won by a front-runner. The surprise was that the front-runner was Happy Face, a horse who had not been on the lead since her maiden win in June 2002, a span of 16 races. A lack of speed in the fifth and eighth races gave horses with some early zip the edge in those events, too. A couple of closers won on the card but those races are usually dismissed as aberrant by rabid bias-seekers.

Statebred fillies and mares lined up for the finale on Paceless Sunday, and like most of the other races on the card, race flow was the dominant factor in deciding the outcome. All Ablaze, part of the favored entry, raced just off modest fractions set by eventual runner-up Stinky Twinkie, and that pair was unthreatened to the wire. Behind them, Gracious Megan ran a deceptively good race, as she rated off the leaders and made a seemingly mild late run for third, which was actually a strong showing considering the pace scenario. She's entered back in the ninth race on Thursday against similar, but this time there are several horses in the race with some early foot, and that should help her run an improved race. After all, she was running against the bias in that last one.

How jockeys play musical chairs

Thursday's featured eighth race drew a strong field of optional claimers on the turf, and interestingly, the top three contenders in the field are all switching jocks. Those in search of a handicapping angle will instead get a glimpse of a typical example of the jockeying done by agents on a daily basis.

Symbolic Cat won his most recent race, a $50,000 claimer, with Joe Bravo aboard, yet Chuck Lopez will ride him on Thursday. Bravo now lands on Wild Buddy, who was ridden by Eibar Coa in his latest. Coa, as it turns out, pilots New York shipper Celtic Sky.

"It was a last-minute decision for us to run in the race," explained Terri Pompay, who only recently took over the training of Symbolic Cat. "I didn't think the owner, Donald Carroll, would let me run for $45,000, but he said 'Let's go for it.' "

The problem was, Bravo had already picked up the mount on Wild Buddy, who became available when Christophe Clement entered Celtic Sky. Joe Ferrer, agent for Coa, originally had the call on Wild Buddy but was asked if he was available to ride if Celtic Sky were to run. Paul Parisi Jr., trainer of Wild Buddy, was willing to give the mount to Bravo, who had ridden the horse in his previous four tries. When the dust settled, the mounts were decided more by politics and availability than by speed figures and class.

"Sometimes you guys read too much into it and think it's about handicapping," said Ferrer.

Danny Mellul, Bravo's agent, put it more directly.

"Most jockeys have the same philosophy," he said. "You try to find the best horse you can to ride, and if a better horse comes along, you [take off] the other trainer and ride him."