04/09/2002 11:00PM

Get ahead in the count, then swing


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Some baseball coaches advise batters not to swing at the first pitch. The idea is to see the pitcher's stuff - his delivery, his speed, his habits. That way, batters are better prepared when the next pitch comes across the plate.

This advice didn't transform me into a good baseball player. Neither taking nor swinging on the first pitch could overcome my slow bat and slow feet.

But I am a believer in taking the first pitch when gambling on horses. I choose to make only small bets during the early stages of a meet, instead focusing on how the races are playing. Then I make adjustments, and take a few swings.

With week one in the books at Lone Star Park, I went through the equivalent of batting practice on Tuesday by analyzing the results of the first four days of racing here. Here is what I determined:

Although Fair Grounds horses were the most dominant runners at Lone Star Park opening week, they offered little value. Having been successful supporting overlaid Fair Grounds horses at Keeneland in past meets, I anticipated these runners would do similarly well here. But unlike at Keeneland, where there are many starters who previously raced at Gulfstream, here the focus is on Fair Grounds horses.

Seventeen of the first 40 races (43 percent) were won horses whose last race came at Fair Grounds. Not one of these 17 winners paid $15 or more, and the average payoff of the group was $8.25.

Based on the number of Fair Grounds horses in each race, they should have won approximately 30 percent of the races. So a 43 percent success rate was impressive. But the numbers weren't impressive enough to offset a large amount of public support.

The big prices came on Sam Houston shippers. Two horses that last raced at Sam Houston paid $38 or more, and the group on a whole returned an average of $14.

Those that last raced at Sam Houston won 17 races opening week (43 percent) - the same as runners from Fair Grounds. They weren't as successful, however, since they accounted for approximately half of the starters at Lone Star Park.

The Sam Houston runners were generally outclassed in open maiden, allowance, and stakes races. They held their own in claimers and state-bred races, suggesting these are the types of races in which they warrant most consideration.

A limited number of horses from Oaklawn and other tracks raced here opening week, so it would be premature to draw a conclusion about where they fit for at least a couple more weeks. It should be interesting to see how they stack up against runners from Fair Grounds, and how much support they receive.

Even more important than where horses last raced was their running style. Speed ruled on the main track at Lone Star Park last week, on fast and wet tracks. Eight of the 23 sprint winners were on the lead or within a photo for the lead at the first call (35 percent), and another 30 percent raced within 2 1/2 lengths of the pacesetter at the same stage.

Speed was devastating in routes. Seven of the 10 main-track routes were won by horses sitting first or second after the opening half-mile. These seven were in front or within a length of the leader.

Conversely, speed was a detriment on turf. Just one of seven turf routes was won by a horse that raced among the top three after a half-mile. That horse was Kris's Sleigh, a 4-5 favorite who raced uncontested on the lead on opening day under jockey Jerry Bailey.

Supported by this data, I am excitedly anticipating the week ahead at Lone Star Park. I plan to take speed on the main track, and ignore it on the turf. I will respect Fair Grounds horses while knowing they will be heavily played. I will downgrade Sam Houston runners in the classier races, and will back them when overlaid in claimers.

Time will tell if these early results hold up over the course of the meet. But looking at the information, a handicapper can't help but feel he is at least ahead in the count.