01/24/2002 12:00AM

Gulfstream has played far from normal

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - One of the ancillary benefits of making your own speed figures, and not just relying on the Beyer Speed Figures, is the realization of how much subjectivity is involved.

Judgment calls must be made when it comes to gauging track speed: Lump all the races together? Split the sprints and routes, or the first and second halves of the card? Both?

Seldom are things cut-and-dried, but that is the real fascination of the exercise at the end of the day, isn't it? The numbers at least provide some semblance of order to the inherently chaotic swirl of data.

At any rate, the figures used for the purposes of this week's discussion, and those that may follow as the season unfolds, are the Quirin-style figures that by now should be familiar to the majority of halfway-serious hobbyists.

The pace figure is on the left, measuring the half-mile call in sprints and the six-furlong call in routes. The final-time figure on the right. Typical $10,000 claimers run 100-100; slow maiden claimers run low 80's; graded stakes horses can reach the 115's.

After a full season of grappling with the complexities of New York - can anyone confidently assign pace figures to windy days at Aqueduct? - I committed to adding a second circuit in 2002. Not because I'm an altruistic public handicapper looking to spread the wealth, but in the selfish hopes of getting an occasional edge assessing the merits of shippers from popular feed-in tracks.

Gulfstream, of course, was first up on my list because of all the horses that will scatter from there to New York and Kentucky in the spring.

After a couple weeks of study, what I want to know is this: What have they done with real Gulfstream racing strip?

This is not the pasteboard-hard track we've come to expect in recent years, at least so far. For the meet's first 16 days, my track variant has come up slower than par 13 times, otherwise it's been right on par or perhaps a tick or two fast. On 10 of those 16 days the track played at least one full second (five ticks) slow.

Some of the notable Gulfstream races, and their figures:

Jan. 4, 7th (106-115): Keats - remember him? - set an uncontested pace and drew off through the stretch in hand, apparently winning with something in reserve. Experience says that in cases like this, where a lone speed horse gets away with an easy pace and finishes up strong, looks can be deceiving. Keats received a 106 Beyer for the effort, his second triple-digit figure from 10 U.S. starts. The other was a 110 in last year's Lexington, which he upset at 16-1 after building a three-length lead to the pace call.

Jan. 12, 11th (108-109): The 9-year-old Sir Bear's half-length win over Red Bullet earned figures more commonly associated with third-level allowance horses. If this is an indication, the older handicap division is ripe for the picking.

Jan. 13, 10th (111-111): Hook and Ladder, who went 3 for 3 at Gulfstream last winter, didn't seem to mind that the surface has changed, but enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that he ran down Kipperscope, whose best game is those five-furlong dashes on the turf.

Jan. 19, 6th (107-107): More evidence that the handicap division is paper-thin came in this optional claimer (with fourth-level allowance conditions) that featured the return of Monarchos. The pace and final-time figs belong to Mongoose, who found himself in the fall of his 3-year-old season in New York, and had since been training up a storm at Payson Park. Mongoose's last two races in New York, each a conditioned allowance win, were 106-106 and 101-105, so this performance was right in line with expectations. Not so for Monarchos, however, who ran a 102-96. First time back or not, his connections had to be looking for a lot more than that.

Jan. 19, 11th (106-107): Booklet's front-running win over Harlan's Holiday, who had 11 lengths on the remainder, including Remsen runner-up Nokoma. Based on this, Nokoma needs a drop to entry-level allowances in order to restore his confidence.

On the opposite coast, my interpretation of the other Kentucky Derby prep last weekend came up as follows:

Jan. 19, Santa Catalina (101-109): Very inconclusive effort for Siphonic, who stumbled at the break and put in a five-length gain into a slow pace. Perfect-trip winner Labamta Babe (99-109) still has lots to prove in terms of ability to overtake more realistic fractions.

Since hindsight is 20-20 and handicapping is more fun when a betting window is involved, let's look at the last-race figures for Saturday's Paumonok Handicap contenders at the Big A:

Run Kush Run(106-105)

Here's Zealous(112-111)

Wrangler(104-112)

Late Carson(101-108)

Peeping Tom(105-107)

In terms of both Quirin and Beyer, the key to the race is Here's Zealous, who got a 108 Beyer winning the Gravesend Handicap first time on the inner-dirt track; and Wrangler, whose first effort over the track was a third-level allowance win with a Beyer of 110.

Despite Wrangler's marginally faster final-time figures on Quirin and Beyer, pace analysts will be inclined to give Here's Zealous the nod due to his clear-cut edge through the opening half-mile. It's also noteworthy that Wrangler's best race prior to the Jan. 1 win came at Belmont on Oct. 28, when his 104 Beyer equated to 105-110 Quirin style - another relatively slow pace up front.