02/05/2003 1:00AM

Form all over the map at Gulfstream


LAS VEGAS - Gulfstream is back. That's the official line. But is it really back?

According to the average figure report of the Beyer Speed Figures, which calculates the average figures run in each class, the quality of racing at Gulfstream peaked in 1995. It declined gradually for two years after that, then dropped sharply in 1998 and 1999, and leveled off in 2000 and 2001. A further drop in 2002 led to many complaints last year about the decline of south Florida racing. This year the quality of racing at Gulfstream has rebounded, but only marginally. It has only made it back to the not-so-glorious days of 1999-2001.

Perhaps the trend is headed in the right direction, but if it's going to get all the way back to Gulfstream of the mid-1990's it still has a long, long way to go. How far? When measured by average speed performance for each class, this year's racing through 25 days of the meet is a full three Beyer Speed Figure points behind the 1995 season - a huge gap. In addition, during the first 25 days of last year's below-standard meet, there were 23 races won with Beyer figures of 100 or higher. This year there have only been 17. Clearly, the restoration of Gulfstream to its former status is far from complete.

Most of us tend to think that the higher the quality of racing, the more formful and logical the results will be. And we think that cheaper racing usually means less formful, more inscrutable results.

Not so, according to the performances of last-out Beyer figures this year. As this year's quality of racing has improved over 2002's, the percentage of winning previous top-Beyer figures actually has declined rather sharply. Last year, despite all those supposed races lacking quality, the owners of last-out Beyer figures on dirt won a remarkable 33.1 percent of the races (30.2 percent if you don't count co-top figures). This year, despite the slight improvement in quality, that percentage has slipped to 27.4 (only 25.4 if you don't count co-top figures).

This relatively low performance of the last-out top Beyer figure is just one indicator of how tough Gulfstream has been this year. Of course, there are all the usual difficulties we face every winter - an abundance of baffling races for 3-year-olds; an abundance of baffling turf races; the baffling biases (if they are biases) of the idiosyncratic Gulfstream surface; and the bewildering lineup of trainers and runners coming from all over North America. And now, this year, we have another hugely complicating factor - the overwhelming presence of the Shuman-Gill operation.

When I first heard that trainer Mark Shuman and owner Michael Gill would be attacking the Gulfstream meet this year, I knew they would be a serious factor. But nothing in their previous history prepared me for what has happened here. At Delaware this year they won at only a 14-percent clip, and only occasionally did they turn ordinary runners into unstoppable freight trains. At Gulfstream, however, the story has been quite different.

Last Saturday's races were typical of the problems that the Shuman-Gill team present for the poor player trying to swim upstream against the Gulfstream current:

Race 2. Swift Mover. Claimed on Jan. 15. Favorite at 8-5. Sits a perfect pocket trip. Comes up totally empty in the stretch. Beyer improves only three points.

Race 3. Scamp Along. Ran horrible in her previous race. Still is bet down to 2-1 by a public understandably swayed by Shuman and Gill's 35-percent win rate. Runs horribly again, finishing last. Beyer figure drops from upper-60's to 38.

Race 5. Miss Glitterman. Claimed back on Jan. 12. Runs back at same basic claiming level. Tires badly, managing only a well-beaten fourth. Figure drops from 69 to 58.

Race 7. Tactical Juli. My best bet of the day. Coming off a tough, against-the-bias trip. But the tough post forces her wide on both turns and she falls a nose short at odds of 7-2. Her Beyer improves substantially from 68-70-66 to 77.

Race 8. Regal Explosion. 9-1. First start since last October. Duels in a fast pace and collapses in the stretch. His Beyer drops 10 points.

Race 9. Denimsanddiamonds. Claimed on Jan. 5 for $25,000. Goes wire to wire for $35,000, winning by an eased-up 12 1/4 lengths. Previous Beyers were 67-70-68-58. Her winning Beyer is 84. She is a generous 4-1.

So, after the public and even some so-called wise guys had been given a severe drubbing at the windows for five straight races, up pops Denimsanddiamonds. Her explosive performance certainly wasn't surprising. We had already seen Sentimentalromance jump up from figures of 57-60-61 to an 87, on the way to an 11 1/4-length win. And Native Heir had exploded from 91-85-94-88 to 108 - although he actually lost by a head. And you can't leave out Boston Brat, who, as a remarkably spry 6-year-old, regularly turns in gorilla-like performances, running lifetime-best after lifetime-best without any apparent strain. No, the performance of Denimsanddiamonds wasn't surprising - just random and unpredictable. One of the dozens of loose canons already sent out by the Shuman-Gill team.

Perhaps next winter I'll give up on the exciting, big-time challenge of Gulfstream Park and retreat to the comfortable, quiet little worlds of Philadelphia Park and Laurel Race Course. I may not do any better on the bottom line, but I'll certainly have fewer headaches - and a lot more free time.