09/25/2006 11:00PM

Four very instructive stakes

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In last week's column I outlined Breeders' Cup stakes to watch and review.

While the primary purpose was to suggest the value of measuring the development of high-class BC prospects on the improve or tailing off, there were several handicapping subtleties that came to light in the various stakes run on Sept. 23 at Belmont Park and Louisiana Downs.

Specifically:

* What is the value of seeing a bad ride for handicapping purposes in the future?

* How can a seemingly sharp performance be accurately downgraded, suggesting the horse will have difficulty at the next level of competition, or a longer distance?

* When can a player almost conclusively put a line through a seemingly well-placed horse who is being bet heavily?

* Beyond track-bias issues, when is post position an extremely important handicapping factor, if not the ultimate reason why to take one horse over another seemingly equal contender?

* What is a reliable sign to predict a vastly improved performance from a horse on the comeback trail?

In specific examples gleaned from four stakes on Sept. 23, here are some answers to the above handicapping issues:

Lawyer Ron, the overwhelming betting favorite in the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 23, was ridden ineffectively by his regular jockey, John McKee, a rider who had done little wrong in the colt's eight lifetime victories.

Somewhat rank as usual, Lawyer Ron was placed under heavy restraint by McKee while racing on the outside and in close pursuit of front-running longshot His Eyes and pace-pressing Costa Rising through the first few furlongs.

While such restraint sometimes can get a horse under control - especially when covered up in turf races - it often results in an energy loss that is never recovered during the race.

In this specific case, McKee temporarily gave in to his horse and let him get to the front on the backstretch only to apply more restraint suddenly and force Lawyer Ron back into a battle between calls with the overmatched His Eyes and Costa Rising, giving up the advantage McKee had on the Super Derby field.

The ultimate outcome was quite predictable at that point, as eventual winner Strong Contender was gathering steam entering the far turn before firing a sustained late rally against a dead game but weakened Lawyer Ron.

So what do we make of Lawyer Ron's race for future evaluation?

Three things, only one of which has to do with this specific race:

Whenever a horse is heavily restrained during the early stages of any race, his performance could have been better than it appears in the past performance lines. This is one of the best reasons to watch video replays of as many races as possible, be they in preparation for the Breeders' Cup or your home track.

McKee is a young rider capable of learning from such an overzealous mistake, but if he is seen repeating this energy-wasting tactic, horseplayers should be wary of his assignments on high spirited, front-running types.

As for Lawyer Ron, unless trainer Bob Holthus is able to get this high-class, high-energy colt to relax on his own, he will expend too much pent-up energy to be a true 1 1/4-mile horse. Even if McKee had not applied the unwarranted, extra restraint approaching the far turn, I doubt seriously that Lawyer Ron would have held off any good horse at 10 furlongs. Very often a true measurement of a horse's capability to handle longer races can be seen in how rank or how relaxed the horse is at shorter distances. In my experience, this fact is even more reliable than how fast a horse closes in shorter races.

In the seven-furlong Matron at Belmont, won by longshot Meadow Breeze in a three-horse photo with the dead-heating Octave and Featherbed, the performance of heavily favored Magical Ride illustrated another important handicapping tidbit.

It is absolute folly to give the benefit of doubt to a young horse trying a longer distance, who may have earned a monster Beyer Figure in her debut at a very short distance, but tired going an intermediary distance in start number two.

Earning a big figure in a five-furlong race, followed by a precocious, but losing display of early speed in a subsequent race is a gilt-edged invitation to toss the horse from contention in today's race at a longer distance. Far better to go for a horse or two with more balanced overall speed, or a good closing punch.

While Meadow Breeze had to improve several lengths to win the Matron, she actually was a more likely win contender than Magical Ride, who will remain a bet against in any future race where she is not the controlling speed.

As for Octave, she had every advantage, saving ground throughout, rallying along the rail from behind the dueling speed horses. But she was hard urged for the final three furlongs and could not get past Meadow Breeze or her stablemate, Featherbed, in the final sixteenth. These combined facts suggest that Octave's performance was not as good as those of Featherbed or Meadow Breeze, who were both on the pace throughout. It further suggests that despite her pace-aided rallies in the Adirondack and Matron, Octave must improve to be a genuine Grade 1 performer at longer distances.

In the seven-furlong Futurity, which was run .73 of a second faster than the Matron, with a much slower early pace, the race probably was decided when King of the Roxy drew the outside post in the original field of seven that was pared to six with the scratching of Buffalo Man.

Having tactical (not precocious) speed and an outside post position in a closely matched contest is a major advantage in a one-turn race, especially a one-turn race at an elongated sprint distance such as seven furlongs to one mile or longer at Belmont and seven furlongs to one mile at Aqueduct, Arlington, and Churchill Downs.

The obscurely bred King of the Roxy, by Littleexpectations out of a Bold Forbes mare, already had turned in a good second-place finish in the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special on Aug 17. Now, with his outside post in a seemingly well-matched field, King of the Roxy was assured of a stalk-and-go trip with clear sailing outside the probable speed types, including second choice Incriminate.

While that might not have been enough to make King of the Roxy a lock to win the Futurity, such a discernable tactical advantage usually forces all other horses in the field to work harder to prevail. Thus it pays to give an extra point or two of respect to any horse with an outer post in a one-turn sprint who possesses tractable speed and rates close or equal to the best contenders in the field.

In the one-mile Noble Damsel on the Belmont turf course, the winner, Karen's Caper, gave an ample demonstration of how a recent display of punch from close order while dealing with a slow pace can tip off a much stronger finish next time out.

Karen's Caper's weak finish for fourth in her 2006 debut at Saratoga on July 28 certainly was a subpar performance by a solid Grade 1 stretch runner. But, her second-place finish in the Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup on Aug. 28 featured a sustained rally from less than three lengths behind the slow pace set by a relaxed My Typhoon. This type of performance and/or a display of more tactical speed by a confirmed stretch runner invariably hints at a vastly improved performance ahead, especially in a race with more pace.