03/19/2004 1:00AM

How you say, missed opportunity?


NEW YORK - It is an ancient, if not entirely honorable, racetrack tradition for someone to sneak through a good thing on a derby day undercard, whether it's the Kentucky Derby or the Kamloops Derby. It's the biggest day of the meeting, the track is filled with once-a-year racegoers, and everyone's attention is distracted by the main event. In other words, it's a perfect day for a putover.

In a recent eight-day span, I attended three Southern derbies, going from the Louisiana version March 7 to the Florida one March 13 and finally Tampa Bay's on March 14. The first two were chalk festivals, with even the maiden races going to highly logical second-time starters who had run big figures in their debuts. The very few non-favorites who won were plausible contenders. There were no well-meant firsters, nary a reversal of form, and not a hint of a betting coup either day. Had the game gone entirely legit?

Then came the third race on Tampa Bay Derby Day. And it was a beauty.

I thought I had spotted a putover candidate in the field, a second-time starter named Storyville Girl trained by Roy Lerman, who seems to show up at Saratoga every year with apparently overmatched runners who usually outrun their odds and sometimes light up the tote board like a Christmas tree. Storyville Girl had spent the first half of her debut race running last of 12, then passed half the field down the stretch as if perhaps permitted to run only briefly. Hmmm. At 20-1 on the morning line on derby day, she seemed a candidate for rapid improvement. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the track she was a late scratch.

The remaining field of 12 3-year-old fillies who lined up for the 6 1/2-furlong maiden race with a $12,500 purse was not exactly brimming with Oaks or Alabama candidates. The favorite was a Lucky Lionel filly named Lucky Cutie, who had rallied for second in her career debut Feb. 1 while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 39. That was enough to make her 7-5. The second choice was Flashback Dancer, who had earned a Beyer of 35 with a similar closing second against maiden claimers. The only two firsters in the race were dead on the board at 20-1 and 50-1. The rest looked hopeless, none more so than No. 14, France, who had replaced Storyville Girl in the lineup.

France's career consisted of two of the ugliest past-performance lines you will ever see. She had made her debut in a one-mile maiden grass race at Hawthorne last Oct. 24, and after a quarter of a mile was 30 lengths behind the field before steadily retreating to be beaten 53 1/2 lengths at 47-1. Seven weeks later, she tried the dirt at Turfway and was "Done early" according to the chart, which showed her 20 lengths back after a quarter-mile and 36 3/4 lengths back at the wire. You could look through a week of Daily Racing Forms without finding a horse beaten 90 1/4 lengths in its first two starts. Needless to say, her two Beyers were 0 and 0.

Yet somehow she beckoned to me as she sat at 45-1 on the tote board. Perhaps it was the magnificent, almost historic dreadfulness of her two running lines, or perhaps it was her classic, one-word, six-letter name, like Ponder, Nashua, or Forego. She beckoned, but I did not heed the call. When France suddenly dropped to 35-1 as the field walked into the starting gate, you know exactly what happened next. Read the footnotes:

"France showed very strong speed to press the pace three wide from the outset, drew clear out of the turn, then shook off Lucky Cutie leaving the furlong grounds and drew off late."

The mutuels: $73 to win, a $351 exacta with the favorite, and a $17,198 superfecta with the three favorites running two-three-four.

Passing up a France is a surefire prelude to an afternoon of dreadful defeats, and that is exactly what followed. I liked Menifeeque at 3-1 in the Tampa Oaks and loved Mustanfar at 7-1 in the Tampa Derby, and both were nailed on the wire by underlaid favorites ridden to perfection by Pat Day. In another race, I was split out of a fat exacta by a horse named - no kidding - Stinke Pant's. Imagine my delight as the track announcer bellowed, "Here comes Stinnn-keee Pants!" and a nearby gaggle of toddler-clutching, hunch-playing young mothers shrieked with excitement.

I tried to find other Frances in other races, but they all ran the way their past performances said they should. I had missed the putover of the 2004 derby season. As they say, there's only one France.