07/18/2008 12:00AM

Have a plan, and throw it out: For Spa bettors, flexibility is key

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On the eve of Saratoga's 140th season, your best bet is to expect the unexpected. A summer at the Spa defies early predictions and generalizations, and the only sure thing is that no two seasons are ever the same.

The so-called Graveyard of Favorites is where Upset beat Man o' War, Jim Dandy shocked Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox at 100-1, and Onion outran Secretariat. Last year, a winning system during a chaotic first few days was as simple as this: Bet every horse in every race, then sit back and collect on a parade of longshot winners. A $2 win ticket on each of the first 195 betting interests raked in $396.30 from a $390 outlay, with no handicapping whatsoever; profits would have been substantially higher had 71-1 bomber Al Sheetahn not been caught in the shadow of the wire on Day 2. Favorites started out 22 for 106 , and had students of form queuing up at ATMs all over town , before finally recovering to finish at 107 for 347 (30.8 percent).

Before you implement a similar scattershot strategy in the hopes of more parimutuel fireworks during opening week, bear in mind that favorites might just as easily rule the roost , like in 2003, when the chalk won at a staggering 48 percent during the first two weeks, and batted over .400 for the meet. In 2005, favorites fared nearly as well, winning 38 percent.

So, which brand of horseplayer will fate smile upon this year , the jaded weekend warrior with a bankroll and a plan, or the clueless tourist with a dollar and a dream? Will Todd Pletcher win a seventh Saratoga title, or will he suffer through an 0-for-30 mid-meet slump and another 3-for-47 shellacking with 2-year-olds like last year? Is Bill Mott poised to reprise last year's 27-win renaissance that was the feel-good story of the summer? And did anyone in the world have that 2007 exacta of Cornelio Velasquez over Kent Desormeaux?

We can review the results from past summers from now till the cows come home and guess how things will develop during these six weeks. Lacking a crystal ball, however, that's about as far as it goes. Be prepared to adjust on the fly, and hope Branch Rickey was right when he said good fortune is the residue of design.

Basics

The 36-day meet runs six days a week from July 23 through Labor Day, Sept. 1, with Tuesday the only dark day. First post is 1 p.m., with three exceptions: a 12 p.m. start on Travers Day, and a 2:45 start on the "Twilight Friday" cards of July 25 and Aug. 29.

Steeplechase races are on Thursdays, culminating with the $150,000 Turf Writers Cup at 2 3/8 miles on Aug. 28.

New for 2008 are rolling daily doubles, to go along with rolling pick threes on races 1-7 (nine-race cards) or 1-8 (10-race cards).

If betting from dawn to dusk is your thing, morning simulcast wagering from the United Kingdom is available in the backyard area, just inside the main gate on Union Avenue.

Playing fields

The main track is good old conventional dirt, 1 1/8 miles around, with a seven-furlong chute. In two-turn routes, beware of placing too much emphasis on one-turn route form at Belmont Park, and downgrade the chances of horses drawn very wide , though as a practical matter, route races with big fields are few and far between.

Outside posts were also a detriment in dirt sprints last year. In the juvenile dashes up to 5 1/2 furlongs, horses from post 9 and outward went 1 for 17; at six and 6 1/2 furlongs, posts 11-12 were 1 for 15; and despite an ample run to the turn, posts 9-12 were a combined 2 for 38 at seven furlongs.

The main track can test horses' stamina, enough so that turn-backs and/or turf-to-dirt types historically produce some fat win payoffs in the long sprints. The track was particularly deep and tiring in 2006, but livelier last year: Secret Gypsy ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.26 to break Mayakovsky's 6-year-old record, but J Be K lowered the mark again to 1:03.13 less than two weeks later. On opening weekend, Lawyer Ron won the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Handicap in 1:46.64 to obliterate Tri Jet's 33-year-old record.

The rail was a bit deep early on last year: Horses from post 1 got off to a 2-for-34 start in sprints; the two inside posts went a combined 0 for 22 to start off, with 8 of 11 winners breaking from post 5 or farther out.

Thanks to an exceptionally dry summer in 2007, only a handful of races were rained off the turf, and both the Mellon (outer) and inner courses produced supersonic times: Shakis won the 1 1/8-mile Bernard Baruch in a record 1:45.33 on the Mellon; in an overnight stakes at the same distance four days later, Criminologist lowered the inner-course record to 1:45.61. On closing day, a 2-year-old first-time starter named Big Brown flashed a hint of what was to come, wiring a 1 1/16-mile route on the Mellon, and running the last sixteenth of a mile in under 6 seconds.

Nowadays, less is more on turf thanks to the proliferation of 5 1/2-furlong sprints on the Mellon course. Eleven such dashes were carded in 2005; that total doubled to 22 in 2006, and nearly doubled again to 40 last year. There were 11 turf routes at 1 3/8 miles or longer in 2004; last year, there were only four.

Perhaps it was a statistical anomaly, but the inside post (1 for 40) was a death sentence in turf sprints last year, while the best-producing spots were toward the outside in post 10 (5 for 16) and post 7 (8 for 39).

Intuitively, one would think the rail would be a good place to be in mile races on the inner, but it was no edge (1 for 27) last year; horses drawn in posts 11-12 on the inner, more predictably, were 0-30.

Stakes highlights

The first Saturday card of July 26 offers a $500,000-guaranteed pick four on the Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Diana, Go for Wand, and Whitney, and the winners automatically qualify for Breeders' Cup races in their respective divisions.

Travers Day (Aug. 23) again dangles a $1 million-guaranteed pick four on the Victory Ride, Bernard Baruch, King's Bishop, and Travers, which is the nation's oldest 3-year-old stakes. Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara is expected to use the Jim Dandy (July 27) as a prep for the Travers. Flower Alley, Bernardini, and Street Sense swept both races the last three years.

On Aug. 16, the Alabama shares the spotlight with the Sword Dancer Invitational for the first time.

Stakes lowlights

The Sword Dancer was moved from its traditional spot on the third Saturday of the meet to Alabama Day, creating a ho-hum third week during which the only graded stakes is the A.P. Smithwick Memorial, a Grade 2 steeplechase.

New York-breds

The Yaddo and West Point handicaps on turf are the marquee attractions of the Aug. 9-10 weekend, which seemingly reinforces the prevailing notion that on the NYRA circuit, any time is a good time for a statebred race.

Back in 1987 when Saratoga was still a four-week meet, statebred races made up 14 percent of the menu (31 of 216 races); two decades later, their presence had more than doubled to just over 29 percent (102 of 347 races) in 2007, including a maiden-claiming sprint won with a Beyer Speed Figure of 30. That is not a typo.

The Beyer pars for the trio of traditional statebred conditions (older males) run several lengths slower than corresponding races for open company: maiden special weight, 83; first-level allowance, 86; and second-level allowance, 89. During the past few years, though, a handful of additional conditions have been added: third-level allowance, optional claiming, starter handicap, straight claiming, and several tiers of maiden claimers.

The most anticipated statebred race, if there is such a thing, is the $150,000 Albany at 1 1/8 miles on Aug. 20, the third and final leg of the Big Apple Triple for 3-year-olds along with the Mike Lee at Belmont and the New York Derby at Finger Lakes. No horse has won the $250,000 bonus for sweeping the series, but Tin Cup Chalice, who remained perfect at 6 for 6 after taking the New York Derby at his home base July 12 for trainer Michael Lecesse, looks to have an excellent chance this year. Lecesse's father, Ray, played a huge part in legitimizing New York-breds when his Fio Rito won the 1981 Whitney Handicap.

Through July 7, the top New York-bred sire of 2008 was Chief Seattle, followed by Freud, Golden Missile, Eltish, Regal Classic, Artax, Wheelaway, Disco Rico, Western Expression, and Hook and Ladder.

Two-year-olds

The juvenile stakes program for fillies and colts consists of the six-furlong Schuylerville (July 23) and Sanford (July 24); the 6 1/2-furlong Adirondack (Aug. 13) and Saratoga Special (Aug. 14); and the seven-furlong Spinaway (Aug. 31) and Hopeful (Sept. 1). Along with those six stakes, the stars of tomorrow might pop up in any of 60-65 maiden races.

Beyond the obvious advice of watching the tote board and checking behavior and physical appearance before a race, pay special attention to horses purchased at 2-year-old sales for significantly more than their sires' stud fees, as indicated to the right of the sire and grandsire. The top-class sales will read OBSFEB08 (Ocala); FTFFEB08 (Fasig-Tipton); and BARMAR08 (Barretts), along with the auction price.