01/02/2003 1:00AM

New Year's resolution: Play the lone speed!


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The New Year is traditionally a time for taking stock, for re-organizing priorities and vowing to make changes that improve our quality of life.

As far as that has to do with handicapping and betting, I have developed a holiday tradition of leafing through the result charts and my betting records for the previous year to review the races or situations that stand out in the Woulda Coulda Shoulda Department.

Each year the dancing light of a cozy fire, and 20-20 hindsight, illuminates a wealth of scenarios where a zig would have been better than a zag and vice versa.

Each year, I resolve to be more diligent about capitalizing when the same opportunities come along. But like the snowflakes that have already been so plentiful at Aqueduct these days, no two races are ever exactly alike, and during the frenetic pace of the day it's easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees.

So after going through 52 issues of DRF Simulcast Weekly and considering what might have been, I opted for simplicity, and resolved to make just one alteration in terms of mindset for 2003. Get ready, here it comes:

Be more prejudiced in favor of lone speed in dirt races.

This may sound like yesterday's news, but everyone pays lip service to the importance of early speed and yet such horses continue to outrun their odds.

As horses have become more inconsistent and injury-prone it is now truer than ever that lone speed on the dirt is the way to go.

I'm not concerned with the obvious front-runners that go off at short prices in short fields, but with the ones that are shunned by the public in large and competitive fields where anything might happen.

This is what usually happens to closers in bulky fields: Trouble.

The quintessential example occurred on the first Saturday in May, in the world's most well-known and storied race, when War Emblem defied conventional wisdom and left a gaggle of plodders sucking on his exhaust fumes. For horseplayers, the result of the Kentucky Derby was the key lesson, and state-of-the-game address, for 2002.

While everyone else either took a hold, broke slowly, or lost ground, War Emblem was allowed to breeze along free and easy on a track that had been carrying speed all afternoon, and he won laughing at 20-1. This despite a last-out Beyer of 112 in the Illinois Derby that was the best figure in the Derby field by far.

That was actually the second time in a month that War Emblem could have been had at a fat ticket. When he wired the Illinois Derby at 6-1, the key was just how much the crowd (and I) went ga-ga for the odds-on deep-closer Repent, and underestimated the significance of a late change in the race's pace dynamics.

When the other early speed horse in the race, One Tuff Fox, became a late scratch, it meant War Emblem would have little trouble establishing the pace, which was something he had done three weeks earlier to win an allowance race by a pole, with a figure every bit as good as Repent's top.

This scenario plays out daily at tracks large and small, major and minor, when a key pace scratch occurs. Bucket-loads of money are wagered based solely on the advice of public prognosticators, and these revised pace scenarios can be grossly overlooked.

A second key point regarding War Emblem is his "inconsistency," a trait that is abhorred by the media and handicappers who mass-produce winners for the public, but something that should be embraced by bettors.

The argument can be made that War Emblem, far from being inconsistent last year, was as reliable as they come. When he made the lead early, he won. When he didn't make the lead, he lost.

Of course, plenty of horses with less inherent class than War Emblem are exactly the same way. An example at Aqueduct last Saturday was Max Jones, who wired a third-level allowance sprint at 15-1, as the longest shot on the board in a six-horse race.

Max Jones ran nine times in 2002. On the five occasions when he failed to get the lead at the first call, he was up the track. Of the four times when he made the lead early, he won three, paying mutuels of $33.60 on Dec. 28, $17.80 on Nov. 9, and $13.80 on July 10. Each win came immediately after a loss by a margin of a dozen lengths or more.

Speed horses like Max Jones, who are consistently so inconsistent, are a player's best friend.