11/06/2003 12:00AM

Here is what's working at Churchill


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Most good handicappers are cross-eyed - not literally, but from the standpoint that they have one eye looking backward at performances, trends, and biases and the other looking forward toward future wagers.

With a third of the Churchill Downs fall meet complete, here are some early-meet thoughts and statistics to apply to future races:

* Through the first nine days of the meet, an average of nearly 10.2 horses has competed per race. That is well above the national average, and high even for Churchill, which traditionally has draws large fields.

This has led to competitive racing, big prices, and high handle. It has also led to some interesting wagering opportunities.

Consider Churchill's practice of permitting also-eligibles to draw into a race on the race day. These "alsos," typically numbered between 13 and 16 on the program, often outrun their odds, even though many times they inherit an unfavorable outside post position when racing in routes.

Perhaps because some bettors presume these horses will be scratched (as they generally are), they can go unnoticed by the betting public. These also-eligibles are also rarely among the selections of professional handicappers and touts, who would rather not waste ink on horses that are considered unlikely to run.

Although the odds on these alsos are prominently displayed on television monitors, they are harder to spot on the toteboard. The Churchill toteboard has enough space for only 14 betting interests. So when it needs to present more numbers, it will rotate the listings of horses 14 through 16 in the final slot on the board.

What happens if there is a number 16 in the race and no 14 or 15? The tote remains dark for a couple cycles as it lists numbers 14 and 15, then it shows the number 16 and his odds.

It makes little sense to rotate these numbers if the other horses are not running. A person could glance at the tote and see no outside horse listed, but if he looks back 10 seconds later, he might.

Yet this is good for bettors if they stay informed. By knowing which also-eligibles are running, and keeping an eye on their odds, bettors may spot big prices.

A good example was Mister Sultry in Tuesday's fourth race. Likely to have been 15-1 or so if he had been in the body of the race, he won as program No. 13 at odds of over 24-1. A few days earlier, Hot Hand nearly won from the also list at 31-1. That price came despite the fact he was saddled by popular trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

* One of the challenges of handicapping Churchill is assessing the chances of horses that last raced at Keeneland.

In past meets I had upgraded the performance of closers and horses that raced wide, and downgraded those that raced on the lead or near the Keeneland rail.

Heading into this meet at Churchill, I anticipated that angle would not be as powerful. The Keeneland surface played fair to all types of runners for the most part this fall, which is something that can rarely be said of that track.

Thus far in the Churchill meet, the majority of repeat winners still have been those that rallied from off the pace to win at Keeneland. Stellar Jayne rallied from far back to win an allowance there, and repeated in the Pocahontas at Churchill. And recent Churchill allowance winners Saint Waki and Nannycam were at least third or farther back in the early stages of their Keeneland triumphs.

Turf form from Keeneland has held up tremendously well at Churchill. This can be attributed to the depth and quality of the Keeneland turf races, which attract horses from all over North America to compete for the lucrative purses.

If a horse wins a race on grass at Keeneland, he figures to challenge right back, even if he has to step up to a more challenging condition.

Give riders a break

Horseplayers have a history of being critical of jockeys. The jock should have had the horse on the lead. He should have come up the fence. . . . Yada, yada, yada.

How quickly people forget how the rider risks his life on his mount, and has to make split-second decisions.

These riders are tough, and as if a reminder was needed, race fans got to see one in Wednesday's ninth race, when Finally Here broke down on the turn, throwing jockey Calvin Borel into the dirt.

Borel arrived at the finish line, by ambulance instead of horseback, shaken but relatively uninjured. His face covered with mud and blood, he walked back toward to the jocks' room and was asked by a horseman, "Calvin, you still riding the 10th?"

"Yes, sir," he answered, as if the question need not even be asked.

He returned to the paddock minutes later and rode 42-1 shot Mortonsville to an eighth-place finish.

While on the subject of riders, Pat Day is perched at his customary spot atop the rider standings. Through Wednesday's racing, Day led the meet with 13 winners. John McKee and Cornelio Velasquez were tied for second with nine winners apiece.

McKee has been the most profitable of the trio because of his success with longshots. Fifteen percent of his mounts had won, and his $2 ROI on the meet was $3.03.