09/04/2007 11:00PM

Make sure to get value from bad form

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NEW YORK - Moonlight Watch was 0 for 20 going into Monmouth Park's second race on Aug. 24, yet she was 4-5 in the betting, and her stretch-running score was a painful reminder that the end of the meet had arrived.

It happens at every meet at Monmouth Park: The maiden and entry-level allowance ranks thin out as the summer wears on, and by the end of August we're left with, well, the best of what's left. In this case, it was Moonlight Watch, but there were several horses at the tail end of the meet who won at underlaid odds simply due to the lack of serious competition. The New Jersey circuit continues at the Meadowlands, but it's generally the same horses moving up the turnpike from Monmouth, the talent pool gradually eroding as the fittest and best horses graduate to the next level.

Glenn Thompson, the trainer of Moonlight Watch, has been something of a specialist when it comes to capitalizing on this phenomenon. Thompson is also the conditioner of Exciting Times, a winner of the second race on Aug. 29. Exciting Times came into that race with an 0-for-29 career record, and scored a narrow win as the preferred part of the entry, which was favored at 3-5. Moonlight Aria, 0 for 25 before winning the second race on Aug. 12, was another from Thompson, though she at least offered a square price of 16-1. That type of price makes it a little easier to take a shot on a longtime maiden, but when it comes to short-priced horses with obvious flaws it's usually easy to bet against them. That might not be the case in this particular time of year, however, as the season and the quality of racing winds down in New Jersey. But as a general, long-term principle it's still best to take a stand against a vulnerable favorite.

The field for Friday's 10th and final race at the Meadowlands is typical of the fields handicappers encounter at this stage of the season in New Jersey, grouping together seven statebreds who finished behind Moonlight Watch in her maiden win. Phone Empress, having just beaten most of these when second to Moonlight Watch in her latest, will vie for favoritism with Free Agent, who is coming off a layoff of nearly a year and from a barn that has been unable to find the winner's circle this year. Either can win given the quality of the field, but neither is likely to be an appealing value play.

Handicappers searching for a price will have to look elsewhere, and there won't be too many in the field that will offer a bigger price than Little Karina. She has run three times, and the only time she ran a positive Beyer Speed Figure was in her debut, when she was beaten 25 lengths in a statebred maiden special weight race. But her two tries against maiden claimers are better than they look on paper, including her latest.

Little Karina finished over 22 lengths behind Moonlight Watch. She checked coming off the backstretch and was caught wide into the turn, but the trouble was subtle enough that she figures to be overlooked. In her previous race she caught a sloppy track, which she may not have liked, and she made a little move on the turn before tiring in that one. In that race she finished behind Bondai, yet another Thompson-trained Jersey-bred maiden winner in August.

Given the Thompson barn's success with maidens over the past few weeks, it might not be a bad idea to include Precious Chevanne - yes, trained by Thompson - in Friday's finale. The barn has only 4 wins from 90 starts this year, but when it comes to statebred maiden claimers - races that will likely be plentiful throughout the Meadowlands meet, which runs through Nov. 10 - it's a whole new game.