12/27/2007 12:00AM

Going by the book on the Big A inner track

EmailOZONE PARK, N.Y. - It's become a personal tradition to spend part of New York's holiday break revisiting old handicapping literature, partly because it's in keeping with the season's sense of hope and renewal, and because 10 straight dark days affords the greatest gift of all: time. Picture, if you will, bookworm Burgess Meredith as the last man on Earth in the "Twilight Zone" episode "Time Enough At Last," and you get my gist.

So far, the highlight of this winter's hibernation has been a spin through the pages of the obscure but excellent "Pace Makes the Race." This 1991 tome, co-authored by Tom Hambleton, Dick Schmidt, Michael Pizzolla, and Dr. Howard Sartin, was based on Sartin's original methodology of feet-per-second velocity ratings, and presents the material in a non- intimidating format. It also features a preface by Tom Brohamer, a Sartin disciple, whose classic "Modern Pace Handicapping" was also first published that year.

One nugget stood out:

"Myth: Track bias is the product of the individual track surface, daily surface variation caused by weather and inside-outside speed factors. Reality: Long research says that these factors are responsible for only 20 percent of what is known as bias. The other 80 percent is a direct result of the match-up of contenders in a race. The physical and behavioral interrelationship between horses is the major cause of perceived bias."

That 20-80 designation is on the money. Simplistic bias pronouncements usually amount to nothing more than premature exclamation. The fact remains, however, that some surfaces have stronger long-term tendencies than others, as all were reminded when racing resumed on Aqueduct's inner dirt track Wednesday. No less than seven winners led from gate to wire - six of them posting margins of victory exceeding three lengths - and the two exceptions were never more than two lengths from the lead, including a $2.70 winner who was life-and-death to prevail after a stalking trip.

Thursday's surface was sealed and muddy, but remained a conveyor belt to the winners' circle for speed. Six of the first seven winners led past every post, including upsets at $30 and $27.20.

My first post-break bet came Thursday in race 5 on Archie Boy, a 4-1 dropdown with speed in a $7,500 sprint. As fate would have it, Archie Boy spent the first five furlongs dueling 9-5 favorite Punch the Odds into defeat and appeared home free a sixteenth out, only to be overtaken near the wire by Love That Song, a 32-1 shot who was last of 12 early. Only afterward did a review of the past performances reveal Love That Song's last two wins - in fall 2006 - had come on wet, sealed tracks.

Back to the bookshelf, I guess.

Eclipse ballot revealed

The 2007 Eclipse races were cut-and-dried for the most part, so in divulging my selections I won't belabor the obvious. Like most everyone else, I had the following on top: War Pass, Indian Blessing, Curlin (also Horse of the Year), Rags to Riches, Lawyer Ron, Ginger Punch, Midnight Lute, English Channel, Lahudood, Maryfield, and the steeplechaser Good Night Shirt.

In the people races, I had Adena Springs as breeder, Shadwell Stable as owner, Garrett Gomez as jockey, and Joe Talamo as a shoo-in for apprentice.

A vote for Kiaran McLaughlin as top trainer was the only category where I took a bit of a contrarian stance. Purely on numbers, it's hard to look past Todd Pletcher, who is setting another earnings record. But a fourth consecutive vote for him would have felt a bit like voting for IBM to keep those dividends coming. The obvious second choice is Steve Asmussen, who handled Curlin masterfully; he is nose to nose with Scott Lake for the national win title, and may have garnered late support with his stakes-winning spree at the Fair Grounds last weekend. Asmussen would be a thoroughly deserving winner.

But McLaughlin has numbers to support his case, the most notable being earnings per start. Through mid-December, Pletcher's total of $28.3 million worked out to about $23,000 per start. Asmussen's total of $23.1 million averaged to only a bit less than $10,000 per runner despite Curlin's $5 million all by himself. McLaughlin-trained runners had brought home $12.7 million, with earnings per start of nearly $26,000.

In the final analysis, though, I voted for McLaughlin for this reason: Among the game's most prominent horsemen, he is far and away the bettor's best friend. Of 39 statistical categories tracked by Trainer Form, he is profitable in 24, including raging return on investments in several areas where bettors must take his horses on faith: first-time turf ($3.77); 61-180 day layoffs ($3.59); sprint to route ($3.61); and second-time starters ($4.46). The latter total includes Daaher's $27 maiden victory at Belmont's spring meet.

Despite consistent success on racing's biggest stages, McLaughlin has profitable ROI totals with his last 600-plus dirt runners ($2.21), 270-plus turf runners ($2.40), 440-plus sprinters ($2.28), and 480-plus routers ($2.25), which is simply astounding. If there is a more talented all-around horseman, or a better one for fledgling trainer-pattern handicappers to become more familiar with in 2008, his name escapes me.