11/05/2002 12:00AM

Handicapping without a net

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Handicappers who believe that current form and class still count for something will have a tough time interpreting High Wire Act in the feature race Thursday at Hollywood Park.

High Wire Act has no current form, having not raced in more than four months. As for class, the 6-year-old High Wire Act has not hit the board since January 2001. Twenty-two months later, who knows where he fits?

Trainer John Shirreffs may know.

"I haven't seen the field, but he's training well," he said. "We stopped on him and changed some things."

It helped. High Wire Act has been working sharply, like a horse ready for a peak effort first start back. Thursday, he returns in a seven-furlong allowance against a moderate field that lacks an obvious favorite.

Questions surround most of the eight starters. The Bob Baffert-trained So Urgent and Skip to the Stone ran poorly in respective comebacks last month; both should improve. Golden Hare was fortunate to win a nonwinners-of-two-other-than allowance on a controversial disqualification, and faces tougher. Capo Di Capo has tailed off. Lugny has never tried dirt. Not for Me goes route to sprint. And Last Parade may not be good enough anymore.

High Wire Act was well regarded from the start. He won his January 1999 debut via disqualification, stretched out and beat winners in his second start, then followed with a third-place finish in the Grade 2 San Felipe. A son of End Sweep, High Wire Act stalled with an eighth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, and subsequently was sidelined for nearly 15 months.

He has been mostly a benchwarmer since. High Wire Act started five times in 2000, three times in 2001, and on Thursday is making only his second start of 2002. Still, he always has had a touch of quality, runs well fresh, and figures off his best effort.

"The thing you have to wonder about is he has been training at Santa Anita," Shirreffs said. "[Hollywood] is deeper, and it's different material."

Shirreffs was able to work High Wire Act once at Hollywood, but he remains uncertain if High Wire Act can produce a peak performance after training most of the fall at Santa Anita.

His concern is valid. The Santa Anita surface is not as deep, and horses working at Santa Anita frequently produce fast work times. Conversely, horses training regularly at Hollywood Park typically work slower, but gain more fitness over the deeper Hollywood track.

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