04/24/2003 12:00AM

Fig-making pitfalls


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, as any horseplayer who has ever tinkered with homemade speed figures will tell you. I'm glad my figure concoctions aren't published, because it saves me from potential public humiliation each time finding the elusive "correct" variant involves a series of subjective decisions - which seems to be the case about every other day. This fact of figure-making life probably explains why Andy Beyer has so little hair left. He must have pulled it all out during those sessions cloistered in a room with, as he puts it, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a red Flair pen.

When chaos happens, I simply put a little squiggle alongside the number and review subsequent performances in search of corroborating evidence. Sometimes, things will start to make sense after a few horses have raced back and run better or worse than expected. Sometimes the mystery remains unsolved. Every racing surface has its own subtle quirks that can be hazardous to a figure maker's fiscal health, whether it be the swirling winds at Aqueduct that create bizarre fractional times out of the chute; the "Death Valley" rail at Belmont that swallows up contenders for weeks at a time; the water table at below-sea-level Fair Grounds; or the unbanked turns at Pimlico.

As every horseplayer in the free world goes over the Triple Crown prep races with a fine-tooth comb in search of the Kentucky Derby winner, still more esoterica becomes known. Readers of the current edition of Daily Racing Form Simulcast Weekly learned in Steve Davidowitz's cover story, for example, that the suspiciously fast final fraction of the Arkansas Derby might be attributed to a downhill run through Oaklawn Park's stretch. Also, that all final fractions on Keeneland's Blue Grass card had much slower final fractions than usual, prompting Bobby Frankel to say, "There must have been something wrong with the track surface."

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining this decision - I'm putting a big fat squiggle next to the 110 Beyer Speed Figure given to Ten Most Wanted for his win in the Illinois Derby.

That squiggle may be the key to finding some value in Louisville next week, because it's hard to find fault with Empire Maker, who received a 111 for winning the Wood without being fully extended. But it sure seems as though Ten Most Wanted's bandwagon is getting overly crowded, to the point where he may go off as the second or third betting choice.

The 110 looks reasonable if you take a line through the consistent Cherokee's Boy, who received an 89 for finishing fifth, some 13 lengths behind the winner. A figure maker's delight, the reliable Cherokee's Boy had previous figures of 89-87-89-85-89-90-89-88 (no kidding), and he came out of the Illinois Derby to win last week's Tesio with a 92. His Illinois Derby running line is downright ugly, though, and I find it hard to believe he ran as well at Hawthorne as he did in winning his two prior stakes starts at Laurel by open lengths.

So where did that 110 figure come from? Granted, 3-year-olds of spring can improve overnight, but Ten Most Wanted shot up 18 points off his previous best of 92.

The runner-up, Fund of Funds, who has only a maiden win in five starts, also was credited with an 18-point improvement, from an 86 to a 104. And the third-place finisher, Foufa's Warrior, improved 15 points from a 76 to a 91.

Is it possible that the Illinois Derby's first three finishers all improved 15-18 points on the afternoon of April 5?

Perhaps. But if there's a mad stampede to Ten Most Wanted in the exotic pools, I'll pay to find out by taking the contrarian approach. After all, even if the 110 was legit, he still has to do it again while picking up a dozen pounds, which is no small matter at 1 1/4 miles.

I do know one thing - after watching last year's bonanza exacta in the Derby, at least a small portion of my exotic tickets will cover the possibility of Empire Maker-Lukas-Baffert, and Empire Maker-Baffert-Lukas.

Gulfstream shippers run amok at Big A

It's the annual clock-cleaning. From March 16 through April 23, horses with a last-race running line at Gulfstream Park pasted the locals, combining for a 24 for 85 record (28 percent) at Aqueduct.

A $2 flat bet on all such shippers would have returned $214.80 for a $170 investment. Even subtracting the longest-priced winner, Lake Danzig ($36.60), the total remains in the black at $178.20 thanks to six more double-digit mutuels in the group.

Mark Hennig saddled five winning Florida shippers, followed by Todd Pletcher and Allen Jerkens, each with four, and Nick Zito with three.

Maiden special weight (8 wins) and allowances races (11 wins) have been the principal targets, followed by stakes (3) and claiming races (2).