08/04/2005 11:00PM

Favorites have a firm grip at Saratoga

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Flower Alley impressed in the Jim Dandy, but the Travers could be a different story.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Can we finally put the whole "Graveyard of Favorites" thing out to pasture?

Horseplayers get more information and opinions thrown their way at Saratoga than anywhere else. With so many in-the-know bettors fishing around in the pools, and smaller fields with fewer contenders here to stay, it is hardly surprising that Spa favorites have outperformed the benchmark 33-percent win rate in each of the past three years: 34 percent in 2002, 40 percent in 2003, 38 percent in 2004.

Through eight days, the chalk was chugging along at another robust clip, winning 28 of the first 75 races, just over 37 percent. Bet that it won't dip much below that level by Labor Day.

If you're looking to get creative with your handicapping in graded stakes, you had better have a really good reason to make a win bet on an outsider or be prepared to sit on your hands. Form ruled in the seven graded stakes opening week: Favorites won five, and the two others went to a second choice and a third choice. The median win price was $4.30.

Those who are growing weary of tearing up win tickets on "value" horses might consider keying the standouts in exotic wagers, either in single-race exotics when the second or third choice looks no better than several others and can be forsaken, or in pick threes and pick fours, where a couple of legs look fairly confusing and smaller tickets won't include the fringe contenders. The late pick four on July 31 contained Mayo Post at 4-5, as well as Ashado at even-money, but still paid $5,560 thanks to a pair of outside-the-box turf winners. One of them was Secret Forest, a usable $43.20 winner switching to turf for the first time with a 375 Tomlinson rating.

Day-by-day notes from week one

July 27 - Shakespeare had not been out since winning the first two starts of his career early in 2004. He looked like a can't-miss Grade 1 stakes horse after running down Whale, who was fresh off a win at Delaware Park in course-record time. Even though Whale had things his own way setting a slow pace, Shakespeare sliced him into sushi by gaining two lengths through the final five-sixteenths that went in 28.68 seconds and running his final sixteenth in 5.68. Wow.

July 28 - Henny Hughes, a 2-year-old Hennessy colt, reached sixth gear from the quarter pole to midstretch of the Saratoga Special, running his fifth furlong in 11.70 seconds to distance himself from Master of Disaster and stamp himself the clear favorite for the Hopeful. Earlier, a 2-year-old Hennessy filly, India, won her maiden by a dozen lengths, as if she may be the one to catch in the Spinaway.

July 29 - Hennessy was a Hopeful winner, so it seems only natural that Henny Hughes and India seem to like Saratoga, too. But a common misconception about pedigree is that horses must always take on the characteristics of their sires and dams. Sometimes it just isn't that simple. Stage Door Johnny never ran on grass, but became one of the most potent grass sires in the world. Similarly, More than Ready made his mark as a dirt sprinter, including a dazzling win in the Sanford at 2 and the King's Bishop at 3, but he is nevertheless siring some good-looking turf routers. Two fillies by More Than Ready (and from More Than Ready's connections) flashed turf talent on this card: 2-year-old maiden winner Ready to Talk and Ready's Gal, a perfect-trip winner of the Lake George for 3-year-old fillies.

July 30 - In the eighth race, a first-level allowance at 1 1/8 miles, the Pletcher-trained Desert Breeze won in 1:52.26 after six furlongs in 1:13.51. The final time to that point was the fastest dirt route of opening week by a comfortable margin. In the Jim Dandy 35 minutes later, Flower Alley dueled Mr. Congeniality into the ground after six furlongs in 1:11.54 and shrugged off token challenges from Reverberate and Andromeda's Hero to win in 1:49.50. The effort was good for a 112 Beyer Speed figure, but it remains to be seen whether Flower Alley will maintain that form in the Travers or fall by the wayside as did three recent Pletcher-trained Jim Dandy winners - Graeme Hall, Strong Hope, and Purge. Flower Alley was under severe pressure through the stretch, and it is tough to gauge how much the race took out of him, but having an extra eight days to the Travers - now a full four weeks after the Jim Dandy - may be the big key.

July 31 - Flying Zee Stable ran away with the owners' title at Belmont. Flying Zee is as live as can be on the turf here, and it doesn't matter who's training or riding. Classic Expression ($13.60) went to the grass for the first time for Phil Serpe and went wire to wire beneath Edgar Prado. Later, Square Dancing ($37.40) awaited room under a chilly Chantal Sutherland and blew by seven rivals in the last furlong to win for Carlos Martin, who two days earlier had sent out Cosmonaut ($8.10) for a maiden win. The next day, the Patrick Biancone-trained Stock Tip, away 11 months and making his first start on turf, lit up the toteboard at 54-1 with Sutherland. On Thursday, Hall of Famer Frank "Pancho" Martin sent out maiden winner Expensive Lesson ($9.30) with Fernando Jara aboard.

Aug. 1 - The 3-year-old filly stakes ranks are about to get tougher, thanks to two daughters of A.P. Indy.

On Thursday, George Steinbrenner's Sweet Symphony improved to 3 for 3 for Bill Mott, beating four overmatched rivals in a slow-paced allowance route.

On the final day of opening week, Indian Vale, a low-fig debut winner at Monmouth going six furlongs, stretched out to 1 1/8 miles and beat preliminary allowance foes by 13 lengths.

For both of them, the sky is the limit.