02/14/2008 12:00AM

Heart theory singles out three plays

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Some handicappers look at speed figures to measure a horse's talents best, while others focus on class.

Although those traits are important, I've always been swayed by the prospect of playing a horse with heart. Horses like 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who loved a good slugfest, and those of lesser ability but similar to him in that respect regularly gain my support.

I use a two-fold method for measuring heart: viewing race replays and calculating a horse's win percentage.

The replays provide a visual observation of how hard a horse was racing to the wire, and whether he or she refused to lose when looked in the eye. And win percentage measures the obvious - how regularly that horse crosses the wire in front.

From both heart-measuring methods, there is an obvious play in Saturday's Chou Croute Stakes at Fair Grounds Saturday: Buy the Barrel.

A winner of 5 of 13 starts, she has marginally the highest win percentage in the field at over 38, but looking at strictly her last eight races, she is well ahead of her competition with a win percentage of 63. That compares to a 38 percent rate for her closest pursuers over their last eight starts.

In viewing her race replays, I was similarly impressed. Although many of her wins have been blowouts, an Oct. 2 victory over the Delaware Park turf course illustrated what a fighter she is.

Shuffled back on the backstretch and into the turn, she seemed beaten when heavily favored Dean's List opened up a commanding lead in midstretch, but she bravely rallied to catch the leader and outfinish the second choice, Royal Alchemist, a Godolphin-owned filly that was a stakes winner overseas and who had also placed in Group 2 and Group 3 events.

That race came on turf, but it is dirt racing that seems to be her specialty. All but one of her wins have come on dirt, and last month she won the Sam Houston Distaff by 8 1/2 lengths.

Buy the Barrel will not be a big price Saturday. Her strengths are apparent. But my hope is that Fair Grounds bettors will underestimate her a bit off the recent win at Sam Houston, which is widely deemed to be a lesser track than Fair Grounds. At odds of 5-2 or greater, she is worth a wager.

Barbara Fritchie Handicap

Turning to Laurel Park's big race Saturday, the Grade 2 Barbara Fritchie Handicap, I'll play Control System - also for being a hard-trying filly with a winning record.

A winner of 5 of 7 starts, she also has somewhat of a home-court edge, being trained at Laurel Park by Mike Trombetta. She has not raced there, but having worked and galloped there regularly should give her an advantage over some of her opponents, who are shipping in to race.

Unlike Buy the Barrel, Control System has never been tested in a close finish - with all five of her wins coming by 2 3/4 lengths or more. But that is not to say that she has not shown heart.

When racing in the Interborough Handicap Jan. 1 at Aqueduct, she drew the rail, and appeared on her way to a bad trip early. With Oprah Winney scooting to the lead in the mud, she kept Control System pinned on the rail.

Concerned about his position, jockey Julian Pimental took a hold of Control System, eased her to the outside, and changed positions with Oprah Winney, turning up the heat from the outside.

The move made all the difference. Oprah Winney was under a drive exiting the turn, and with her spirit apparently broken, faded to third, 9o1/2 lengths behind Control System.

Control System is untested racing as far as seven furlongs, the distance of the Barbara Fritchie, but having controllable speed and being a winner at 6 1/2 furlongs, seven furlongs seems within her scope.

Suncoast Stakes

Vaulcluse, perfect in two starts, is like Buy the Barrel and Control System in that she knows how to win. What she lacks is stakes experience - something that could put her at a disadvantage in the mile and 40-yard Suncoast against a filly such as Sunday Holiday, who exits three straight graded stakes races.

Yet Vaulcluse is still a promising play. Coming off a win in the slop over the inner track at Aqueduct - one of the most speed-biased tracks in the country - she now goes to Tampa Bay Downs, a track kinder to closers.

According to BRIS statistics, 14 percent of the mile and 40-yard races at Tampa this meet have been won wire to wire. Contrast that to the returns from the inner track at Aqueduct at a mile and 70 yards - the distance at which she just won after rating in fifth - and horses are wiring the field 38 percent of the time there.

Perhaps sloppy conditions changed the track bias at Aqueduct when Vaulcluse last raced, with only one of five routes being won by the early leader that Dec. 14 afternoon. But my feeling is that the sample size is too small to definitively say the track profile changed over the wet going.

Putting aside bias, Vaulcluse ran well, whipping the opposition by four lengths and running a deceptively fast time of 1:44.50 over a sloppy track that played slowly.

She has a great opportunity to defeat her more seasoned rivals in the Suncoast.