05/24/2001 11:00PM

It's dogma: good horses run bad races


LEXINGTON, Ky - It's disappointing that the 3-year-old class of 2001 isn't more consistent than it has been so far. Supporters of Point Given were unconvincing while trying to explain away his fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Fans of Monarchos have been grasping at straws while attempting to rationalize his sixth-place finish in the Preakness. Members of the media, and ordinary racing enthusiasts have been agonizing while trying to come to grips with these inconsistencies. But the bottom line is that we'll probably never know the reasons why.

The bigger question is whether or not we should be surprised. When most racing fans focus their attention on a big race a couple of weeks, or a month or more before it will be run, there is a very high expectation that the result should make sense. Even if you didn't happen to pick the winner, once you have devoted a few hours to handicapping the race, reading about it, and discussing it with your friends, it only seems fair to ask that the outcome should be one of the more logical of all of the possible scenarios. Unfortunately, that is an unreasonable expectation in a sport in which good horses run bad races every day, at every track in the country.

It isn't difficult to find examples of this phenomenon. In the second race at Pimlico on Preakness day,

7-5 favorite Lake Agawam finished seventh in a field of eight. Before that effort, he had finished in the money in seven of nine career starts. On both of the occasions when he had checked in fourth or worse, he still was able to finish in mid-pack. But not this time.

In the 10th race, the Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap, Explicit appeared to be a legitimate favorite. He had earned a remarkable 118 Beyer in an 8 1/2-length allowance win at Gulfstream, then dead-heated for second, only a neck behind Kona Gold in a Grade 2 stakes at Santa Anita. Explicit had been consistent while finishing in the money in all three of his starts on the dirt this year. But he unexpectedly turned in a clunker when he finished last of six on Preakness Day.

On most days, when a horse runs a puzzling race we're willing to turn the page, move on to the next race, and look past it. But we shouldn't, at least not until the lesson sinks in: Even though we love them, even though we are fascinated and intrigued by them, even though we spend countless hours attempting to decipher subtle nuances in their past performances, Thoroughbred horses are much more prone to inconsistency than most handicappers, trainers, jockeys, and owners are willing to admit. That's why Seattle Slew's undefeated record through the Triple Crown is so special. That's why we love Ruffian. That's why Cigar's 16-race win streak is so impressive. Cuppy tracks, slow breaks, unusually fast and unusually slow fractions, premature moves, etc., were obstacles they could overcome.

Unfortunately, champions of any age are few and far between. Until the next one proves that he is the real thing, nobody should be surprised when the leading 3-year-olds look great while winning, or look bad while losing the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.

Handicappers should be realistic enough to accept this truth, and would be wise to avoid dogmatic beliefs as these horses continue to prove exactly what they can and cannot do.

Bettors who plan to play the Belmont should insist on getting attractive overlaid odds on their favorite 3-year-old(s) as they consider win bets, or structure their exotic wagering plans for the exacta, trifecta, and/or superfecta.