10/24/2003 12:00AM

From fast races come future winners


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Churchill Downs opens its fall meet Sunday, local race fans will undoubtedly grumble at inconveniences caused by the construction of the new facility. There will be no finish-line view at the track, except for stewards and other officials. Parking will seemingly be in a different zip code. And many of the hangout spots and watering holes of track regulars will be gone.

But as long as there are mutuel tellers and horses running in a circle, life can't be too bad.

Even with construction taking place, there should be no drop off in the quality of the racing product. All the premier trainers who typically race their horses at Churchill will be back, and so, too, should their top horses.

If the racing compares to last year's, expect to see some future stars, and not just in stakes races. A future stakes horse can pop up in any 2-year-old maiden race at Churchill Downs. Last year, for example, eventual Grade 1 winners Lady Tak and Bird Town won their maidens at Churchill in the fall.

This year there ought to be at least another couple of talented babies that exit the maiden ranks. Naturally, the plan is to do more than watch them, but to have a few bucks on them, too.

In preparation for this Churchill Downs meet and to better identify talented prospects, I put together the charts that accompany this column. One lists the Beyer Speed Figures that I have found represent par for non-claiming races during the fall at Keeneland and Churchill. The other chart identifies fractions and final times that are typical for a horse running an 80 Beyer at Churchill Downs.

I've found this information valuable, both at Churchill and elsewhere. By knowing the Beyer par for a level, isolating contenders and pretenders is more easily accomplished. The pars also assist in assessing the relative chances of first-time starters in maiden races. If no horse has shown the ability to run close to par in a 2-year-old maiden race, the chances of the first-time starters improve because they are facing opponents that have not come close to running the times necessary to win.

Pars also assist in spotting talent. When a race is run more than five Beyer points above par, I track the winner and upgrade the performances of the losers. Turning back to last year, both Lady Tak and Bird Town ran faster than par at Churchill. Lady Tak earned a 94 Beyer in her six-furlong maiden win (19 points above par), and Bird Town received an 80 Beyer (9 points above par). Later in the meet, Lady Tak won an allowance with a 103 Beyer (23 points above par).

Fast winners tend to be heavily supported when they return, but an also-ran in a quicker-than-normal race, particularly one dropping in class, can become an attractive overlay in his next star.

The time chart, the one listing the splits and final times that are roughly equivalent to an 80 Beyer, represent the starting points from which I make my own speed figures for the Churchill Downs meet.

Although I put less emphasis on pace than other horseplayers, the fractions in this chart help me to quickly get an idea how a race shaped up. One caution - early fractions are strongly influenced by wind. If there is a tailwind on the backstretch, for example, horses running a mile out of the chute will have the wind at their backs for a half-mile. This will create a fast opening quarter- and half-mile fraction, and give the illusion of a fast pace. Vice versa if they are running into a head wind.

Handicappers should also note that in six-furlong races at Churchill Downs, the first quarter is regularly timed as much quicker than at other distances. This is in part due to a long run to the timing mechanism. The horses hit the timer at full speed and therefore run "faster" early.

As odd as it may seem, a horse running six furlongs who completes his first quarter-mile in 21.80 seconds is actually running a slower pace than a horse running 6 1/2 furlongs that races his opening quarter-mile in 22.20 seconds.

A profitable angle can be to play a 6 1/2-furlong speed horse shortening to six furlongs, because the fast splits he set in his race may be overlooked in comparison to the splits of the six-furlong speed horses.

If I can catch a few of those, the construction in the clubhouse won't seem like that big of a deal.