04/04/2002 12:00AM

Little time to study quirks on whirlwind tour


SOMEWHERE OVER THE MIDWEST - Like a lot of air travelers I'm not particularly fond of take-offs and landings. But I can usually keep from becoming overly fractious during the up-in-the-air part of the flight if I have a good stiff Bloody Mary and something to do.

The good thing about Bloody Marys is they're often associated with brunch, so the stewardess doesn't look at you too strangely when you order one at half past nine in the morning.

The good thing about having something to do is that it keeps you from thinking about being 30,000 feet up and hurtling westward at near the speed of sound thanks to the miracle of jet propulsion. Whether adult beverages and writing mix well together is something that remains to be seen. It didn't seem to bother Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski, though, and they were horseplayers too, so I remain optimistic.

What made all this shipping worthwhile is that when we eventually touch down I will be in Lexington, Ky., just in time for Friday's opening-day card at Keeneland, and from what they say it's a place every serious horseplayer needs to visit at least once.

It's one thing to read about a racetrack's physical specifications in the American Racing Manual or to see the place on a television screen. But it will be nice to actually see the 4 1/2-furlong and "about" seven-furlong chutes for myself, and Keeneland is quite unusual in terms of being a 1 1/16-mile track so it will be very cool to see how everything looks nestled against the backdrop of bluegrass country.

Any halfway alert player is well aware of the fact that Keeneland's main track tends to favor horses with inside speed. It's interesting, though, that no such bias governs the turf course. "As revealing as the post position study of the main track was, I was stunned by the irrelevance of post position in turf routes at Keeneland," wrote Daily Racing Form's Byron King recently. "With congested fields and tighter turns, logic called for the inside to succeed greatly in turf routes. But that was not the case."

Two theories support King's findings:

1. A little-known nugget about Keeneland's turf course is that the stretch run is a fairly long 1,247 1/2 feet, which is actually longer than the 1,174-foot stretch on the main track. Closers have ample time to square themselves up and find a clear lane for the run to the wire.

2. Regarding turf racing in general, the effects of post position are lessened because there are three types of pace scenarios: slow, slower, and slowest. It's not nearly as detrimental to be wide in a field that is lollygagging through a 25-second first quarter as it is in a race like the Kentucky Derby, where they fly into the first turn hell bent for leather. Usually, it's a more significant obstacle to be caught wide on the far turn of a turf route, especially when the horse has already been set down, which is a premature move in most cases.

But I won't have too much time to ponder Keeneland's idiosyncrasies, because an hour or so after last post on Friday, it's back to the airport and off to Cicero, Ill., Bloody Mary in hand, for Saturday's $500,000 Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park for another book-signing for "Bet With The Best."

With the exception of some past Illinois Derbies, I'm hard-pressed to recall ever betting on races at Sportsman's Park. The select few things that I do know include the fact that the removable dirt surface is trucked in and laid over an auto-racing surface known as Chicago Motor Speedway, and that despite a 1,436-foot stretch that is the longest in the United States, the track tends to favor horses with inside speed.

I've been keeping tabs on Sportsman's since the beginning of the meet, thanks to DRF Simulcast Weekly, much the same as I do for other circuits, just to keep abreast of significant trends and/or one-day biases. So far, Sporstman's has been a frequent notation in my "At-A-Glance" book, as follows:

March 19 - Five of nine races won wire to wire.

March 22 - Seven of nine races won wire to wire.

March 23 - Six of nine races won wire to wire.

March 24 - Eight of nine winners were one-two-three at the first call.

None of this appears to bode well for the Illinois Derby's heavy favorite, Repent, who is also the second choice on Mike Battaglia's morning line for this weekend's third and final round of Kentucky Derby future-book betting.

But before going crazy trying to knock Repent, which seems to be the fashionable thing to do these days, bear in mind his only loss from six route races (five of them graded stakes) was a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 42-1, and that he owns a Grade 2 victory over the Churchill Downs strip.

In terms of Beyer Speed Figures, Repent's pattern of development is actually quite positive: a new top figure first time out this year in the Risen Star, followed by a slight regression in the Louisiana Derby that still wasn't far removed from his 2-year-old top.

Moreover, that Louisiana Derby figure of 95 was the product of a slow pace, by far the slowest pace that Repent has ever encountered, and he will get plenty of pace to run at in Louisville.

How the track is playing on Saturday, and how the pace unfolds in the Illinois Derby remains to be seen, but I expect to see a considerably more polished Repent than what we saw at Fair Grounds.

At 2-5 though, I wouldn't necessarily want to bet my Bloody Mary money on it, because I still have to fly home on Sunday.