07/06/2005 11:00PM

Given his ties, don't dismiss Old Man River

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Given its recent predictable history, the Swaps Stakes for 3-year-olds might be a poor choice of races in which to back a longshot. After all, seven of the last 10 Swaps winners paid odds-on, and the only upset the past decade was an 8-1 payoff two years ago by During.

The welcome news in this year's Grade 2 Swaps is that the 1 1/8-mile race Saturday at Hollywood Park is a little more wide open. And while the main contenders are obvious - Don't Get Mad, Surf Cat, and Indian Ocean - none is a standout. None will be odds-on.

But have you ever analyzed a race, been stymied by an entrant, and wondered why any rational trainer would enter this particular horse? Old Man River is that horse in this year's Swaps. On paper, he has little business in the race.

Yet it is never that simple when the guy calling the shots is a well-respected trainer such as Terry Knight. Based in northern California, Knight spots horses in races they are qualified to win. He consistently hits at 20 percent, and recognizes opportunities that call for taking a shot. With Old Man River in the Swaps on Saturday, Knight admits: "We're taking a major shot."

It is not the first time. In fall 1994, Knight slipped unnoticed into Hollywood Park with a decent European turf horse named Frenchpark. In his U.S. debut, Frenchpark had finished fourth in a Grade 2, yet Knight bumped him in class anyway - into the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup. Frenchpark drew off by three lengths and paid $72.60.

A bomber payoff in a Grade 1 leaves a lasting impression, so the next time Knight showed up at Hollywood with a crazy longshot, it was less surprising. Sister Girl Blues won her 2002 debut in a slow Bay Meadows maiden race, and shipped south for her second start in the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks. At 29-1, she finished second by a length.

"That was not my call," Knight said, deferring credit to the filly's owner, Everest Stables. Everest frequently runs maiden winners in graded stakes, but it was Knight who prepared Sister Girl Blues for the race.

Attentive handicappers have learned to pay heed when Knight ships outside northern California. Even before Sister Girl Blues, Publication won a five-horse maiden race in his 2001 debut at Bay Meadows, and then packed his bags for a Grade 2 at Arlington.

"I actually loved him," Knight said of Publication. "Early on, he was real professional, he could sit behind horses, inside, outside, it didn't bother him. And he was always running at the end."

Publication won the Grade 2 Arlington-Washington Futurity at $12.20, and finished fourth at 103-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Are there any similarities to Swaps longshot Old Man River? Yes, according to Knight.

"He actually reminds me of Publication. There is something to be said for horses that haven't been beaten."

Old Man River won his debut at six furlongs, shorter than he prefers. He split horses in deep stretch and pulled away at 13-1. Old Man River stretched out and won his second start on a surface (turf) he does not prefer.

"I don't know that he really liked the grass," Knight said. "I'm not going to say he won easy, but when he hit the wire, there was a lot more there."

Based on speed figures, Old Man River is overmatched Saturday. The Beyer par for the Swaps is 106; Old Man River's two wins earned Beyer Figures of 78 and 77. It is not good enough. Neither was Frenchpark, Sister Girl Blues, or Publication.

Surf Cat is the most likely Swaps winner. Racing a distance of ground for the first time in the Grade 3 Affirmed, he was caught four wide start to finish and missed by a neck with a 104 Beyer. In that race, Indian Ocean held off Surf Cat for his third straight win. As for deep closer Don't Get Mad, his two-turn ability in California remains debatable. There remains a possibly stubborn opinion he is best as a late-running sprinter.

The Swaps favorites enter with better chances than Old Man River. But crazy things happen when Terry Knight ships a longshot to a major circuit, and one thing is for sure - Old Man River will be finishing.

"He has never regressed in any race or any work," said Knight, mentioning six-furlong workouts on June 19 and July 2.

"When he worked 1:12, he galloped out in 1:38.20. He worked 1:16 when the track was dug up, and galloped out in 1:40.80. He galloped out faster than he worked. The horse has a big tank; the question is how much class he has."

Knight and owner-breeder Golden Eagle Farm are not afraid to lose the Swaps. Nor should an aggressive horseplayer fear the risk in backing a no-figure longshot to hit the board. How good can Old Man River be?

"I don't think we have gotten close to hitting the bottom," Knight said. "If I thought we had, we sure as hell wouldn't be down there. And if we get embarrassed, we can regroup."