07/26/2007 11:00PM

Graveyard of favorites living up to its sobriquet


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Perhaps it was an omen when Massoud broke down on the lead in the meet opener. Last year, Massoud won the first race in dominating fashion, drawing off as the first of 111 winning favorites at the meet. Sent off at 13-10 on Wednesday, Massoud moved to the lead on his own courage turning for home in what appeared to be a virtual a replay of 2006, but tragedy struck in a flash just outside the eighth pole. The only good thing to come from it was seeing John Velazquez and Raul Rojas, who was unseated from Lieutenant Danz trailing the spill, miraculously escape injury.

Saratoga favorites have compiled an exceptional record the past few years, winning at 38 percent to 41 percent from 2003-05, and just under 33 percent last summer. Maybe we are due for a correction similar to what's been taking place on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrials bounced to the moon after reaching a figure of 14,000.

These things have a way of evening out over time. So far, it is the longshot bettors and the little old ladies with hatpins who have happily grabbed dinner checks away from the chalk players and bloodstock agents. Through the early daily double on Friday's twilight program, favorites had managed to win exactly 3 of the first 21 races, for a whopping $15.10 return on $42.

Two of the three winning favorites were 2-year-olds, Twisted Tale ($5.40) and Sanford winner Ready's Image ($3.80), who got the job done on Thursday. Ready's Image won the Sanford in a brilliant display, and really does look like the second coming of his sire, 1999 Sanford winner More Than Ready.

The only favorite to win opening day was Hangingbyathread ($5.90) in a two-turn turf race, but to have him you needed to know that jockey Edgar Prado would somehow maneuver him to the lead and the hedge soon after breaking from post 11.

The winning system so far has been simple: bet everyone and send it in with both hands. A $2 win ticket on each of the first 195 betting interests would have returned a total of $396.30 on a $390 investment, a $6.30 profit with no roll-up-your-sleeves handicapping required. The profit would have been quite a bit more if Al Sheetahn had not been run down in the final strides of Thursday's sixth race at 71-1.

Because Thursday's opener was a steeplechase, there was an additional daily double on races 2 and 3, and the early pick four began with race 3 instead of its customary start with race 2. That meant that race 6, a 12-horse maiden claimer on turf, was the anchor leg of the early pick four and the first leg of the late one.

Al Sheetahn nearly short-circuited both pools after turning back multiple challenges, but the horse that finally ran him down, Giant Storm ($16.20), was actually quite have-able. He was switching back to turf, where he had run his best race first time out. And he was also switching from a double-bug to Ramon Dominguez. As things turned out, only a rider with the ability of a Dominguez could have navigated Giant Storm through a series of narrow openings. The chart comment reads: " . . . split horses while rallying in traffic and finished with a flourish to get up in the final strides."

Giant Storm keyed pick fours that paid $27,592 and $4,417, and also gave Stanley Hough sole possession of the trainers lead with two victories.

Hough unveiled Sargeant Seattle ($7.60) for a much-the-best debut triumph Wednesday, and kicked off the meet with a 2-1-0 record with his first 4 starters. Considering that a dark cloud seemed to follow Hough around Saratoga last year, when he was a snake-bitten 0-6-1 with 19 runners, it is just more evidence of a karma shift at this mystical and at times unfathomable establishment.

To recall, Hough's third-place finisher last year was Giant Chieftan, who was beaten in a blanket finish in the With Anticipation Stakes after being crowded in deep stretch. In his previous start, his career debut, Giant Chieftan appeared to be en route to a decisive score when something spooked him in midstretch and he veered out sharply to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. By meet's end, five of Hough's runner-up finishers were beaten less than a length, capped by a nose loss by Hometown Boy at 10-1 during the final week.

Like I always say to anyone who's thinking of becoming a public handicapper, this is a tough way to make an easy living. So far at Saratoga 2007, it can't get any tougher than this.