04/16/2004 12:00AM

At low odds, back away from The Cliff's Edge

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The speed bias is back, with a vengeance. During Keeneland's October race meet, horses who led at the first call in main-track races won just 23 percent of their races. It has been a different story at the current April meet. Over the six days of racing from April 7 through April 15, the first-call leader won 20 of 44 races, a remarkable 45 percent success rate - nearly twice as high as their win percentage in October.

But even with speed biases on most days, there have been exceptions. The most notable one was on Saturday, April 10, which was the day the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass was run at 1 1/8 miles. Most casual observers assumed it was business as usual at Keeneland, and have since raved about the way The Cliff's Edge overcame Keeneland's speed bias when he rallied from seventh in that field of eight, 10 3/4 lengths off the pace, to beat Lion Heart by a half-length in 1:49.42. However, a check of the day's results shows that four of the eight winners on the main track were closers who were either last or next to last at the first call. Two other winners rallied from off the pace in fourth position in nine-horse fields, and two front-runners prevailed.

You don't often find that half of the dirt races on a card are won by horses who were last or next to last at that stage of the race at Keeneland, so if any contender in the Blue Grass had an advantage due to his running style, it was The Cliff's Edge. Nevertheless, his 111 Beyer from that race was still impressive, and if he can match or surpass it at Churchill, he would have an excellent chance of winning, especially since there will be more than enough early speed in the Derby field to flatter his closing kick.

But what are the chances that he will reproduce that number, or improve on it, especially with just three weeks between races? That 111 Beyer is 21 points higher than the 90 that The Cliff's Edge earned while losing to Friends Lake and Value Plus in the Florida Derby. It is 23 points higher than the 88 he earned while losing Kaufy Mate in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa. Those are two very good reasons to be skeptical.

My decision as to whether to bet on The Cliff's Edge to win will be to use his price on Derby Day as my guide. Betting value is crucial to me, and I am willing to give horses like The Cliff's Edge the benefit of the doubt when a square price is available. If I can get 10-1 or higher on The Cliff's Edge, I will bet enough on him as a saver to make it worth my while if he wins. But, as things stand now, I am hoping to find better value in a longer-priced contender for my top selection.

As for Lion Heart, although he finished second in the Blue Grass, he still ran a nice race while earning a career-best 110 Beyer. As a lightly raced runner making only his fifth career start, and only his second start since Dec. 20, Lion Heart's Beyer improvement has been steadier, and seems more likely to be reproduced than the big jump by The Cliff's Edge.

But there is also a downside to Lion Heart. Although Keeneland did not favor his running style in the Blue Grass, Lion Heart still had a pretty good trip while loose on the lead most of the way, through variant-adjusted fractions that were only a couple of ticks faster than they should have been. He will face much more pace pressure with a number of genuine front-runners in the 20-horse Derby field than he did in the eight-horse Blue Grass field, and he will also have to hold off the bids of many more pace trackers and closers in the Derby. The fact that Lion Heart could not get the job done in the Blue Grass does not suggest that he will be a good risk at odds that might be between 8-1 and 12-1 in the Derby. I'll try to beat him.