11/09/2001 12:00AM

Finding speed only half the battle


LEXINGTON, Ky. - You have to catch a trend early to maximize your chances for profit. Ask anyone who purchased Microsoft at $117 a share, then rode it all the way down to $64. Or any collector who bought an expensive Beanie Baby, or a rare Pokemon trading card at the peak of their popularity.

Last Sunday I noted that an interesting early trend was developing on the Churchill turf course. The leader at the first call had won three of the first six races on the turf for total payoffs of $40.80, and a remarkable $6.80 ROI for each $2 bet. I proposed that there would be a number of opportunities to profit if the trend continued. The best ones would be horses with early speed who had tired on Keeneland's turf course, which favored closers. The switch to Churchill's speed-favoring turf course would make them serious threats to take their fields all the way.

Since I wrote that article, nine races have been run on Churchill's grass course. Four of them were won by the front-runner. One other finished second. These winners paid a total of $40, an average payoff of 4-1, and a $4.44 ROI. If you eliminate the four longshots at 18-1, 24-1, 29-1, and 90-1 from this group, the results are even more impressive. Four winners from five races on horses at 5-1 and under. Those same $40 payoffs boost the ROI on this smaller group up to $8.00. But despite these great stats, locating the right speed horses was not an easy assignment.

Let's take a closer look at those nine turf races. The first turf race run after my article was printed was on Saturday, Nov. 3. The fifth race was a five-furlong turf allowance sprint. The contenders with the most speed were Boo's Brass Lady at 9-2, and Island Echo at 10-1. I preferred Boo's Brass Lady. She led by a head at the second call, then tired and finished fourth. Island Echo, who appeared to be in tough against that field, rated back in third, wore down the leaders, then held on to win by a neck. She paid $23.40. Woody Haze looked like the lone speed in the 10th, a 1 1/8-mile allowance race. Patient Pat Day gave him a good ride while clear on tepid splits, but Woody Haze faded back to finish second.

On Sunday, Nov. 4, the contender with the most early speed in the fifth, a 1 1/8-mile turf allowance race, was No Deadline, the 8-5 favorite. Unfortunately, No Deadline was rated back in third, and settled for a fourth-place finish. The seventh race, a one-mile, two-other-than allowance, fit the profile. Ensign D C had shown speed, then gave way grudgingly at Keeneland and at Kentucky Downs. Both turf courses assisted closers. I liked him at 10-1. The race was won by a front-runner, but it turned out to be Even the Score, who paid $12.80. Even the Score had shown early speed in most of his races but they had all been run on the dirt, so he hadn't been fighting any track biases. And he had shown much less speed than usual last time when he was in mid-pack, 8 1/2 lengths off the pace at the first call at Keeneland.

The next turf race was run on Wednesday, Nov. 7. The fifth was a 1 1/16-mile two-other-than allowance. Ever With You looked like the lone speed, and fit well with that field. Ever With You toyed with her field early while on a short lead, then drew away to win by 5 3/4 lengths, with some gas left in the tank. Her $13.20 payoff was an overlay. The eighth, a one-mile optional claiming race, was hard to figure. I gave the edge to Buff, the contender who had shown the most tactical speed. In an unforeseen tactical switch, jockey Calvin Borel tried deep-closing tactics with him, and he rallied from sixth of seven to finish second.

Thursday's fourth race was a one-mile allowance on the turf. Hi Tech Honeymoon led throughout and paid $6.60. The problem for bias-oriented handicappers was that she had not been closer than mid-pack at the first call of any of her four career starts, and she had been seventh of nine, 7 1/4 lengths off the pace last time at Keeneland at this same distance in her turf debut.

Conscience Clear had the most tactical speed of the contenders in the sixth race, but had been settling for minor prizes too often this year with an 8-1-4-1 record. He did so again when he finished third. There were two front-runners in the eighth, a 1 1/16-mile optional claiming race. I gave Please Sign In the edge over Silent Emotion on the basis of recency. Please Sign In had run well on Oct. 28, while Silent Emotion had been off for nearly two months. Silent Emotion led all of the way, and paid $7.40. Please Sign In was second throughout.

Anyone who handicapped and bet on those nine turf races with the early speed trend in mind had a legitimate chance to make money. But when the dust settled, it turned out to be very difficult to capitalize on the trend. But if the bias holds, there should be a few more cashable winners still yet to come.