08/28/2002 11:00PM

Horse was all wrong, price all right


DEL MAR, Calif. - If you are going to eat crow with egg on your face, may as well do it right out in the open.

"Came Home cannot win the richest race of summer," went my prediction in Daily Racing Form on Aug. 25, the day of the $1 million Pacific Classic.

That forecast, of course, proved to be incorrect. Came Home won the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic. He won it with a perfect trip while four main rivals were compromised by a variety of factors including pace, trouble, and track profile.

Sky Jack was run into the ground by Came Home's entrymate rabbit, Bosque Redondo. War Emblem was exposed as a need-the-lead speedball who does not rally. Momentum was blocked in traffic, stuck in neutral while Came Home got first run at the quarter pole. Momentum might have been best. And Milwaukee Brew spun his wheels in a race that annually plays against deep closers.

So the prediction was wrong. Came Home, under ideal conditions, can win at 1 1/4 miles. Give him a perfect trip, put his rivals in trouble, allow a final quarter in nearly 26 seconds, and Came Home will win a 1 1/4-mile race at Del Mar almost every time.

A clever handicapper might have envisioned the scenario. He might have recognized neither Sky Jack nor War Emblem had a prayer so long as Bosque Redondo was hell-bent on getting them beat. A bettor might have realized Milwaukee Brew would have a hard time winning a race rarely won by a deep closer. Momentum's traffic problem's were unpredictable. Chalk it up to racing luck. Or lack thereof.

That left Came Home, 8 for 10 going in, and a colt with as much class as any 3-year-old in the country. As for the issue of distance, the belief Came Home is not a 1 1/4-mile horse is meaningless at Del Mar. There are many examples.

Bertrando was not a 1 1/4-mile horse. He won the 1993 Pacific Classic, and failed in six other attempts at 1 1/4 miles. Skimming was 2 for 2 going 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar; 0 for 3 everywhere else. Tinners Way was 2 for 2 in Del Mar races at 1 1/4 miles; 0 for 5 elsewhere. Missionary Ridge won the 1992 Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles and failed in all five subsequent attempts at the distance.

Possibly, the same fate awaits Came Home, whose Pacific Classic upset may have been an opportunistic aberration. Good horses do get lucky. Came Home did Sunday, exploiting ideal conditions while his rivals were less fortunate. As for the clock, Came Home lurched the final quarter in roughly 25.80 seconds. Only one Pacific Classic winner finished slower, Skimming in 2000. Came Home's final time (2:01.45) was the slowest in race history.

Not that it mattered. Came Home, classy bulldog that he is, crossed the wire first.

The prediction that Came Home cannot win turned out be mistaken. And yet the logic remains valid. Came Home remains something short of a 1 1/4-mile horse. He still has not produced a legitimate finish in a fast-pace route, and he will be considered vulnerable in similar conditions, such as in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But the "cannot win" argument regarding this year's Pacific Classic left out a critical factor, and therefore was flawed. The opinion failed to account for the most important factor in parimutuel wagering - probability. It failed to consider odds.

Regardless of how little chance a handicapper afforded Came Home, one still had to recognize the possibility he could upset. Had he started at even money, Came Home would have been the biggest bet-against of the year. He started higher, of course. Came Home went to post at 10-1, the highest price in his 11-start career.

That is where the argument fell hollow, for not a single word in the Aug. 25 story addressed the subject of price. Not one word about odds. No paragraph regarding value or betting strategy.

All the story included was good logic-based handicapping regarding the chances of a 10-1 outsider. It was not enough.

Winning at the races requires sound handicapping, of course. But it also requires detachment from prejudice. No opinion is infallible. No selection is a lead-pipe cinch. No bet-against is a guaranteed loser.

What the scrappy Came Home did last Sunday was win a big race, at a big price, and remind stubborn horseplayers of one thing - while good handicapping opinions are based in logic, there is no racetrack truth that cannot be compensated by a fat price.

Came Home was 10-1 in the Pacific Classic. You did not have to like him. But those who bet against Came Home - a longshot - deserved their dinner fare after the races on Sunday.

They were eating crow with egg on their face.