04/19/2007 11:00PM

New world for brave handicappers


PHOENIX - There has been all sorts of hand-wringing about how the Blue Grass Stakes was run and how Keeneland's Polytrack surface may shepherd in a new type of main-track racing. But to use the Blue Grass as an example of the demise of what we normally perceive as main-track racing really isn't fair.

Sure, the fractions were ridiculously slow, and the race shape looked more like a 13-furlong race at Ascot than a Kentucky Derby prep. But the way the race was run seemed the result of a combination of things rather than a Polytrack anti-speed bias.

No one wanted the lead, not even speedster Teuflesberg, who acted as if he wanted to take back. So the race shape - very slow early and very fast late - was the opposite of what we are likely to see in a couple of weeks at Churchill and what we're accustomed to seeing on a daily basis around the county. Teuflesberg ran in front in the 1 1/8-mile race through fractions of 26.12 seconds, 51.46, and 1:16.65. He finished fourth, a nose and two heads behind winner Dominican, who rallied from fifth place; runner-up Street Sense; and third-place Zanjero.

The fractions in the other main-track races that day were also very slow, but they didn't all turn into quarter-mile sprints. Sahara Heat won the third after pressing the pace. Stream Cat and Perfect Drift ran one-two from off the pace in the fourth, but they were the best horses in those races and they ended up well clear of the rest of the field. My Typhoon prompted the pace in the Jenny Wiley and was challenged by Precious Kitten through the lane, with the rest far back. There was no mad cavalry charge to the wire. And if you saw Silent Name's tour de force in the seven-furlong Commonwealth and didn't know where it was being held, you easily could have thought you were watching the San Carlos at Santa Anita or the Carter at Aqueduct.

There are those who argue this Blue Grass showed us nothing in regard to the upcoming Derby, that as a prep it had little meaning. Where was the same criticism last year when Sinister Minister ran off the charts in the Blue Grass and then couldn't be found in the Derby? Many other recent Blue Grass runnings fall in the same category of having no relevance come Derby time. Blue Grass winners like Bandini, The Cliff's Edge, Millennium Wind, Skip Away, Wild Syn, and Holy Bull made no impact on Derby Day, and most of them weren't flukes. Maybe this year's edition, despite its race shape, will actually be much more relevant.

The synthetic tracks don't seem to be as amenable to speed as conventional tracks, but would you rather have what we had before at Keeneland, where whoever broke on top and got to the rail carried the day?

The game is changing, and sometimes change is painful. Every decade or so there seems to be something new ushered in on the handicapping landscape. For a while trip handicapping became the rage. Then, trainer statistics moved to the fore. Pedigree handicapping has become more crucial in recent years. Speed figures and pace figures are now part of handicapping's ABC's. This may be the next phase in handicapping - assessing the different surfaces. Maintenance of these surfaces remains a work in progress. Handicappers are going to need to keep copious notes, because fractions and final times may vary wildly from day to day.

Good handicappers should relish this. It's not so much a problem as an opportunity. If you manage to find the key, to find what works, you'll have the edge over the other players, and with so much information out there - let's face it, everyone now can see replays, everyone has the trainer stats, and everyone has access to pedigree information and speed figures - that may be enough to separate you from the masses. And in a game where that's crucial to your bottom line, how can that be a bad thing?

One Off: More than an outside chance

One Off appears to be blossoming at age 7, and he looks to have a big shot in Sunday's Grade 2 San Juan Capistrano, a 1 3/4-mile turf race at Santa Anita. One Off won an optional claimer at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15, followed by a big win in the Grade 2 San Marcos at Santa Anita on Jan. 21. He rallied strongly to be second (disqualified to third) in the Grade 2 San Luis Obispo.

Then came the Grade 2 San Luis Rey at Santa Anita on March 24. Bettors sent One Off to the post as the favorite at just under 3-1, but he never really picked up a foot. He was in midpack early along the inside, but never made a move, finishing last of seven.

One Off has his quirks, and one of them is that he does not like being inside. Well, in the San Luis Rey he was inside all the way around. One Off goes into the San Juan Capistrano looking to make amends. So long as he is kept as far away from the inner rail as possible, he has a good chance to do just that.