12/07/2001 1:00AM

Maiden special to maiden claimer a winning drop


They lost their last starts by large margins, as large as 10, 20, or even 30 lengths. They were passed over by most bettors at double-digit - and occasionally triple-digit - odds. They finished in the rear half of the pack, beaten by large margins. But strange as it sounds, under the right circumstances, some of these horses are the best bets to be found at the Turfway winter meeting.

The biggest class drop commonly seen at most tracks is the move from a maiden special weight race into a maiden claiming race. The impact of that class drop is magnified greatly when the horse in question is also switching from a major race meeting to a minor race meet.

It usually takes a good horse to win a maiden special race at Churchill. And there are some pretty good prospects who check in as far back as mid-pack. Expensive auction purchases from big-name barns are commonly found in those races, along with some more modestly bred runners who have worked fast enough to suggest that they are every bit as good or better than many of their high-priced opponents. Horses who finish far back in these races may not be top notch, but they can still be useful, productive racehorses. And they can be profitable wagers when they drop into the right spot.

During the spring, Turfway cards some very nice races. But the level of competition is much softer during the winter. When a horse who finished many lengths behind the contenders in a maiden special race at Churchill appears at Turfway in the winter, you can expect dramatic improvement. Here are a few recent examples:

* Yodog debuted at Churchill on Nov. 11 in a one-mile maiden special race. He received moderate support at 14-1, but disappointed. He broke slowly, trailed throughout, and finished eighth of nine, beaten by 26 1/4 lengths. The 29 Beyer he earned in that performance was the second-lowest number showing in that 11-horse field (there were also two first-timers in the race). Yodog was dropped to $30,000, and ran a much-improved race, rallying to finish second, and paid $7.40 to place at Turfway on Nov. 29.

* Choctaw Ridge never threatened maiden specials when he was 10th of 11 early, then made a mild move to finish sixth, beaten by 11 1/4 lengths at Churchill on Nov. 10. He was slightly under double-digit odds that day, which was no surprise since he received some support from fans of trainer Wayne Lukas. Choctaw Ridge moved to Turfway, and dropped to $30,000 on Nov. 30. Although his Beyer was only third-best of the figures earned last time out in that seven-horse field, Choctaw Ridge outran that number, scoring by 2 1/2 lengths, and paid $7.60 to win.

* Icy Ryan finished fifth, then fourth in maiden special races at Turfway, then finished second in maiden specials at Keeneland and Churchill. He was defeated by 15 lengths as a 52-1 longshot in his race at Churchill on Nov. 7.

Although he registered only a modest 43 Beyer at Churchill, that number was good enough to make him the top-figure horse while running for $30,000 at Turfway on Dec. 5. Icy Ryan was drawing away from his field late when he won by 2 1/2 lengths. He paid $8.80.

* She's a Nice Color trailed all the way, and finished 28 1/4 lengths behind maiden specials as a 125-1 longshot at Churchill on Nov. 6. Although her running line was uninspiring, she deserved some extra credit since she was facing a strong field in a race in which Lake Lady, the 8 1/2-length winner, ran much faster than par. The drop to $10,000 and the move to Turfway turned this also-ran into a contender on Dec. 6. She's a Nice Color was the second-longest price on the board at 11-1 in that seven-horse field. She finished third, and provided the betting value that added spice to the $234.80 trifecta payoff with a 3-1 winner and a 5-2 contender finishing second.

I didn't give these horses as much respect as they deserved during the early part of this meeting, but that's going to change. There will be other opportunities over the next few weeks, and I plan to capitalize on them.