07/20/2001 12:00AM

Jumping off bandwagon too early


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Hi, my name is Steve, and I used to be a Viva Pentelicus-aholic. Unfortunately, I was cured on July 1. If only I had been able to find the strength to maintain this addiction for another six days, I would have made a beautiful score.

I first became aware of Viva Pentelicus when he shipped in from Florida and was entered to run at Churchill Downs on May 26. Viva Pentelicus has blazing early speed, and almost always accumulates a clear early lead. When he rations that speed carefully, there is an excellent chance that he will take his field all the way. But when Viva Pentelicus runs wild early, there's no telling how far back he will finish. He had been running against much classier company in Florida, and figured to be a contender on the drop in for a $40,000 claiming price in a one-mile race at Churchill.

The problem was that Viva Pentelicus was in no mood to cooperate with any attempts to slow him down during that race. He flew through a ridiculously swift 22-second opening quarter, a scorching 44 half-mile, and a hot 1:09.20 six furlongs, then caved in and finished last of eight, beaten by 14 1/2 lengths. I gave him a huge pace figure for that performance, and reasoned that he could beat a similar field if he could be coaxed into setting sane fractions next time.

I loved his chances when he switched back to the turf, and ran for that same $40,000 tag at Churchill on June 7. I made Viva Pentelicus a bankroll bet in my Churchill analysis, and also bet him aggressively with real cash. Once again, he was out of control from the instant the gates opened. Viva Pentelicus led by eight lengths after a quarter-mile. Apparently that lead wasn't large enough to please him, so he increased the margin to 13 lengths through a 45.34 half-mile that was much too fast for that yielding turf course. Viva Pentelicus still owned a 10-length advantage on a 1:10.72 six-furlong split, but stopped abruptly between calls and finished last again, beaten by 20 1/2 lengths.

Some bettors might have lost their nerve after noting that Viva Pentelicus had finished last three times in a row, beaten by a combined margin of 60 lengths. But not me. I recognized that he had run strongly for six furlongs and told the tale in my Handicapper's Diary in Simulcast Weekly. The final sentence contained the following advice: "A switch to a sprint distance would help considerably."

I was thrilled when Viva Pentelicus was entered to run in a 6 1/2-furlong sprint in a $50,000 claiming race on July 7. After earning a clear lead through six glorious front-running furlongs, I envisioned that he could coast home through the final sixteenth. And he was likely to offer a nice price with those double-digit beaten length margins scaring bettors away. I made him a bankroll bet in my Churchill Analysis. I bet him early and often with my own money at an overlaid 8-1. Viva Pentelicus lost a couple of lengths when he stumbled at the start, rushed up to lead by 1 1/2 lengths, then wilted and finished last of nine, beaten by 14 lengths. Ouch. Even with the trouble, he should have run a better race.

I'm a confident guy. I'm an opinionated guy. But I'm also a sensible guy. I was convinced that Viva Pentelicus had more than enough talent to beat the horses that had been beating him. But I had lost my faith that he would regain the mental attitude that would allow him to relax enough early to save the energy he would need to take $40,000 or $50,000 stock gate-to-wire. I had lost two sizable bets as part of his four straight last-place finishes by a combined 74 lengths. And I was in no mood to bet him back when he stretched out to 1 1/8 miles on the grass in a $40,000 race six days later on July 7.

Bernie Flint tried his luck with Donnie Meche this time, and it was a whole new ballgame. Viva Pentelicus cruised through a 24.05 first quarter. He was well within himself on a four-length lead after a leisurely 47.81 half-mile. Meche allowed the margin to shrink to 1 1/2 lengths as they sauntered through a soft 1:12.36 six furlongs, but still had plenty of gas left in the tank. It became clear that Viva Pentelicus was running the race I had imagined that he might run when I had bet him in his two previous races. He gamely turned back the challenge of Side Brush down the stretch, won by three-quarters of a length and paid $26.40. The exacta returned $290, and the trifecta paid $1,424.60. Every racing fan has suffered through a few unusually painful experiences like this, and it was my turn. I even managed a slight smile through the pain.

I like to look for the silver lining whenever possible. With that in mind, I take solace from the fact that Viva Pentelicus won for the precise reason that I had expected. He just did it one or two races later than I had hoped he would. His triumph validated the handicapping principles I had used to select him. All I have to work on now is the timing. And one other thing - I will never again underestimate the chances of a seemingly uncontrollable front-runner on the switch to Donnie Meche.