06/15/2006 12:00AM

Getting tougher to beat favorites

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Students of form grapple with complexities and generalities as a matter of routine. Though there are precious few fundamental constants amid all the uncertainty and ambiguity, we have always taken comfort from the universal truth that favorites win roughly one out of every three races, year after year, come hell or high water.

We say "roughly" because we know the actual percentage may vary a couple of percentage points either way in the short term, but any meaningful batch of results will find favorites winning right around 33 percent of the time.

But don't you kind of wonder about that time-honored statistic these days? In a new millennium of shrinking field size, super trainers, and a fan base with enough space-age technology to massage data six ways from Sunday, it sure seems like there are sustained periods where John Q. Punter is shooting fish in a barrel.

Here's a little statistic for you: From Jan. 1 through last Sunday, June 11, the halfway point of Belmont's spring-summer meet, favorites at Aqueduct and Belmont won 382 of 989 races, a success rate of 38.6 percent.

Almost halfway through the entire year and after nearly 1,000 races, certainly a meaningful batch of results, the chalk is about one good three-day run away from a .400 batting average in New York in 2006 - and this despite handicappers dealing with a bevy of new race conditions, more New York-bred races than ever before, and a steady diet of turf sprints that until last summer were a rarity on this circuit. You might brush off these numbers as an aberration, until you remember favorites flirted with the 40 percent mark the past several summers at Saratoga (a track that will nevertheless still be referred to as the "Graveyard of Favorites" by someone you know as that meet draws closer).

The chalk has been especially strong in Belmont's graded-stakes program this season. After Dubai Escapade concluded Belmont Stakes Week by romping wire to wire in last Sunday's Grade 2 Vagrancy Handicap at $3.50 for a deuce, favorites stood at 9 for 17, or 52.9 percent.

Bettors looking to take contrarian positions in the graded stakes have found their best alternatives in the odds range of 9-2 through 6-1, where there have been five winners. The only graded-stakes winner above 6-1 was Hello Liberty ($21.20) in the Nassau County Breeders' Cup.

One of the mid-priced winners in the stakes sample was Take D' Tour ($14.40), who shipped up from Florida and wired four rivals in the Shuvee Handicap, her fifth win without a loss in one-turn dirt races during the past two years.

Take D' Tour tries to stretch that mark to 6 for 6 in Saturday's Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap (the first leg of an NTRA National Pick 4, which continues on with the Fleur De Lis, Stephen Foster, and Californian), but several factors work against her:

* The five one-turn dirt wins all were at one mile; the Phipps is 1 1/16 miles.

* She is a 5-year-old mare coming off three consecutive Beyer Speed Figure tops.

* She may have been taken lightly stepping up in class in the Shuvee as the lone speed. She will not be allowed to shake loose so easily this time, especially with Spun Sugar in the field, a filly that has never been more than a neck off the lead at the pace call in her route races.

* Balletto couldn't catch Take D' Tour at Gulfstream, or in the Shuvee, but she is rounding back into form after a long layoff and her connections are on a major roll now.

One simple way to get value

Sometimes the right way to play a pick four is to designate key horses and fill out multiple tickets. But there are situations in which things can be much simpler, as was the case on Belmont Day, when an out-of-town member of the media liked Songster to turn the tables on Too Much Bling in the Woody Stephens, the first leg of an all-stakes pick four, after Songster drew the outside and Too Much Bling drew the rail.

He thought the Acorn, Manhattan, and Belmont all shaped up as wide-open races, and so all he did was look to improve on Songster's odds of 5-2 in the straight pool by singling him 1x5x4x6 for $120.

He caught Bushfire, Cacique, and Jazil in his spread races, and effectively turned Songster from 5-2 to almost 7-1. A $120 win bet on Songster returned $462 for a net profit of $342. Half the $2 pick-four payoff of $1,869 (nearly twice the win parlay) returned $934 for a net of $814.

This is one way to leverage a low-priced winner into something better. And you will have plenty of low-priced winners to practice with during the second half of the season.