09/15/2004 11:00PM

Handicapping tips from a dead poet


NEW YORK - Horseplayers who think they know what they're doing reserve a special contempt for their racetrack brethren who pick horses because of their names. Hardworking handicappers who spend hours quantifying and deconstructing past performances cannot help but feel the deepest scorn for yahoos who base their selections upon the coincidence that a horse was given the same name as the family cat or something adorable a grandchild once said.

Except, of course, when we do it ourselves.

A few decades ago, I came perilously close to devoting my career to dissecting the poetry of Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Fortunately, better influences intervened and steered me toward the parimutuel rather than academic arts, but not before I had written an undergraduate thesis on Pope, devoted largely to his poem "An Essay on Criticism." Written entirely in rhymed couplets, the poem is best known for the first two of the following eight lines:

A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind...

Little did I know at the time that "lengths behind" would become a lifelong theme in another context. But 14 months ago, when I opened the past performances to a humdrum statebred 2-year-old filly maiden race at Belmont, I had an automatic bet: a first-time starter named for the mythological pool of poetic inspiration that was the home of the Muses on Mount Olympus - Pierian Spring.

With the filly dead on the board at 16-1 despite Edgar Prado in the saddle, and sent out by Russell Mueller, better known for his work with grass routers than debut 2-year-olds, there was no reason for anyone but an "Essay on Criticism" student to bet on Pierian Spring. She rallied from seven lengths off the pace to win going away by four and paid $35.80. A college education is good for something after all.

Pierian Spring's race earned the unhappy distinction of receiving the lowest winning Beyer Speed Figure of the Belmont summer meeting, a dismal 46 that would have made her a longshot in the next statebred N1x. Her optimistic handlers, however, ran her back in a somewhat tougher spot, the Grade 2 Adirondack. Even I couldn't touch her, not even at 51-1, and she defeated one horse while beaten 21 1/4 lengths by Whoopi Cat.

Pierian Spring took 10 months to get back to the races and was thrashed in three statebred allowance sprints this summer: 10th and last by 18 at 36-1, fifth in a six-horse field by 13 at 36-1 again, and finally 11th of 12 while beaten 19 1/2 at 77-1 on the final Saturday of the meet at Saratoga. But when she returned 11 days later, in the ninth at Belmont this past Wednesday, it was time to try her again.

The difference was that she was trying the grass for the first time and she had three things in her favor: just enough pedigree to suggest she might take to the surface, a trainer who has done well on the grass, and a first-time descent into the claiming ranks. Also, I have a soft spot for horses who have won from well off the pace on dirt, no matter how slowly, who are now trying grass for the first time; it hints that perhaps they can adapt to the slow early, fast late running style that usually gets the money in turf racing.

There was a pick six carryover and a $292,960 pool by the time Wednesday's ninth at Belmont rolled around, but by then I was only alive for consolations and just one ticket in America was alive to Pierian Spring for the front end of the pool. Still, a buck of the $6,489 pick four was still going, though that possible payoff seemed like an underlay by the time the betting closed: Pierian Spring was 96-1.

Pierian Spring was bumped a couple of times and spinning her wheels early, but began to gather steam on the turn and came rolling into the stretch while widest of all. She hit the front for a delirious instant and kept on coming, but just before the wire got nailed first from the inside and then from the outside, missing the $195 win mutuel by just a nose and a head. Third place did me no good, but those who had the $5,600 tri or $39,178 super may wish to raise a toast to Alexander Pope.

Betting her first time out on her name was a "shallow Draught" of a lucky accident. Getting 96-1 on her Wednesday, however, showed that Muses and inspired creativity can be found not only by the Pierian Spring on Mount Olympus, but also in the vicinity of the infield lake at Belmont Park.