08/30/2006 11:00PM

Judge Devil House on ability, not zip code

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Betting early-season 2-year-olds is kind of like betting college football in the first couple weeks of the season. The records of the participants are limited, resulting in the odds being strongly influenced by hype and expectations.

Horses with flashy pedigrees, fast works, and well-known connections are expected to dominate, just as football teams that are returning quarterbacks and other notable players are forecasted to play well.

As we all know, they do not always live up to expectations. The better wagers - in football and in horse racing - come on those that slip past the hype, those that excel despite the public not necessarily expecting it.

I wish I knew which team that might be in college football this year, but I think I have a good handle on a promising yet underrated 2-year-old. Her name is Devil House, and she runs Saturday in the Bassinet Stakes at River Downs.

A winner of two of three starts, she is among the fastest and most accomplished horses in the Bassinet, yet she may slip a bit past the public. Here is my reasoning.

For starters, she is a Fairmount Park-based filly. Although she has never raced there, all of her published works have come at that small track, which mostly offers racing for low-end claimers.

When bettors see such works in the past performances of a horse entered in a major race, they tend to view the horse with skepticism, knowing that typically cheaper runners come from that area. The thinking goes, who would base a good horse there?

I can tell you who would: William Stiritz, who, in addition to owning Devil House, also owns majority interest in Fairmount Park. He also used to be CEO of a little company called Ralston Purina.

Partly because of her Fairmount Park roots, she started at 25-1 odds when debuting at Churchill Downs June 24. Most handicappers, myself included, looked past her. She managed a competitive third-place finish.

Shipped to Ellis Park, where the competition is easier, she was again overlooked, though to a far lesser degree, this time starting as the 2-1 second choice in the betting. She won for fun in the July 23 race, scoring by 3 3/4 lengths over favored Grandestofall.

At that point, her connections - Stiritz and trainer Terry Gestes - shipped her to race at River Downs, where she was matched against an outclassed field Aug. 13. The filly responded with an 8 1/4-length victory in an allowance prep at a ridiculously short price of 1-10 odds.

She was hammered that day, but I do not see that happening Saturday. Last time she faced a field composed entirely of River Downs and Mountaineer Park horses, meaning that her status as a "Fairmount Park horse" did not hurt her in the eyes of the public.

I am expecting a different story Saturday. Lined up against a number of invaders from Illinois and Kentucky, she might start at odds of 7-2 or so.

There are other things to like about Devil House. She narrowly owns the top Beyer Speed Figure in the race (77), earned in her maiden victory two starts ago; she is just as capable of rallying from off the pace as winning on the lead; and she is already familiar racing over the River Downs strip.

Beyond that, she also appears to have upside. As a $42,000 yearling purchase, her sales price does not leap off the page, although it should.

Her pedigree, while not poor, is not what I would characterize as commercially popular. There is little black type among the first two dams of her catalog page, with the exception of her stakes placed dam. Seemingly for this reason, she was placed late in last year's September sale at Keeneland.

She ended up selling very well for a horse placed that late in the sale, especially considering that her sire, the late Chester House, was not statistically hot at this time last year. That suggests to me that she is probably a good individual, a horse that physically is cut out to be a nice animal.

To win, she is going to have to beat Nola Star, a 16 1/2-length winner of a maiden race at Arlington Aug. 5. The latter was brilliant in winning that race, controlling the issue from the start and leaving her foes behind in a flash when turned loose at the top of the stretch.

Nola Star gives every impression that she is a talented filly. The problem is, I think she will give that impression to every handicapper looking at the race. Expect her to be heavily bet.

There are other good fillies in the race, most notably the stakes-placed Beautiful Venue and recent winners Taletobetold, Cohiba Miss, and Babes. But if likely favorite Nola's Star is upset, the underrated Devil House will likely prove the winner.

Bold Start stretches out in Cradle

The 2-year-old action continues Monday at River Downs with the running of the $200,000 Cradle Stakes, one of the first two-turn dirt stakes for juveniles. Entries will not be taken until Friday, making it impossible to consider all the necessary handicapping variables, but based on probable starters, it looks like a well-matched field.

Bold Start, one of three Ken McPeek-trained horses reportedly under consideration, is my choice if he starts. I was very impressed with his efforts at Churchill Downs in June and July, particularly in his third and most recent start, when he gamely defeated a key maiden field to win by a neck going 5 1/2 furlongs.

Seemingly beaten in midstretch, he responded under right-handed urging from veteran Larry Melancon to run down Lightning Larry, who seemed a winner at the eighth pole.

How he will handle the stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles is anyone's guess, but he does not seem speed crazy and may prove up to the challenge. He is my choice to win the Cradle, a race that may also draw Loose Leaf, Hey Bill, Passport, Trophy Road, Wham, Wannabeinclued, Mister Cugat, and Cajun Mon. Of those, most are similar to Bolt Start in that they have won only maiden races.