11/14/2001 12:00AM

New York grass racing a tangled web

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COLUMBIA, Md. - If you enjoy a tough handicapping challenge, try the typical grass race in New York. At Belmont and Saratoga, you frequently face a full field of 10 or 12, often with six or seven possible top selections who look virtually indistinguishable. As a result, with so many talented runners in an overcrowded field, an unusually high percentage of the races are decided by the vagaries of trips, jockey decisions, and racing luck. Quite frustrating and unpredictable.

So far this fall, Aqueduct has offered a similar challenge - further complicated by three factors particular to the Big A:

* The very sharp turns put even more of a premium on post positions and trips, and many horses don't seem to handle the narrower contours as well as they do the more gentle turns at Belmont and at the Saratoga main course.

* Many of the horses who had good grass form in the summer and early fall are now tired from a long campaign, and they can't be relied on to recover that earlier form.

* Because Aqueduct has only one turf course, fewer grass races are carded. So a number of horses have to run instead at The Meadowlands, and then they return to Aqueduct with night-time New Jersey form that's hard to evaluate.

Last Saturday's Long Island Handicap offered all these challenges - and more. It had a field of 13 fillies and mares, at 1 1/2 miles around three tight turns. Back in the spring, the Aqueduct turf course had strongly favored speed, and was very playable. But this November the course has played very fair. So the track bias angle couldn't eliminate anyone.

But the Beyer Speed Figures did eliminate three or four runners who were simply outclassed. Then the trouble began. No fewer than eight of the remaining horses had been running Beyers in the low 90's. I could see no way to separate this group. Fortunately, there were three horses that stood out and deserved special consideration:

Moon Queen: This European 3-year-old filly had the edge on speed figures. Her recent Timeform ratings of 109 and 112 translated into something between 95 and 100 on the Beyer scale, based on the working theory that "Timeform minus 13" gives you at least a ballpark approximation of an equivalent Beyer Figure. (This theory produced a clear-cut exacta of Fantastic Light and Milan in the recent Breeders' Cup Turf. The best American horses had earned Beyers in the 109-110 range, but Fantastic Light's five most recent Timeform ratings between 128 and 133 dwarfed his U.S. opposition, translating into Beyers in the 115 to 120 range.)

Queue: This filly was the only other runner with Beyers to match Moon Queen. In the late summer she had run three big Beyers in a row (98-98-100). But in her most recent effort at 1 3/8 miles she had fallen back to an 89 at The Meadowlands. Would she return to her bigger Beyers?

Summer Solstice: She had to be considered strictly from a trainer angle. Christophe Clement excels at getting horses ready off long layoffs - at any distance. As a 3-year-old in France she had Timeform ratings of 102, 102, 99, and 104 - which translate into Beyers from the upper 80's to the lower 90's. As a more mature 4-year-old she could improve those figures into the range of Moon Queen and Queue.

Unfortunately, each of these three main contenders had serious weaknesses. Queue looked questionable at the longer distance of 1 1/2 miles. She had run all her best Beyer Figures at 1 1/8 miles or less - although back in February she had run a figure of 90 at 1 3/8 miles, about the same as she had been running at that time at shorter distances. Still, it was hard to gauge her chances at the marathon distance.

Summer Solstice had proved she could handle the distance in France, but when she returned to the races back in February at Gulfstream after a four-month layoff she only earned a 90 Beyer. And now she had been laid off for another nine months. Even for a trainer as talented as Clement, you had to doubt her current condition.

My initial choice was Moon Queen, based on her proven ability at the distance and her strong Timeform ratings. But the longer I looked at her past performances, the less enthusiastic I became. Since her first race of the year in March, Moon Queen's Timeform ratings had improved steadily: 99-101-103-106-109-112. Her earlier races had been widely spaced, helping to keep her fresh and avoid any bounce. But since Aug. 24 her races had been spaced much closer together. And her most recent race on Oct. 6 looked like a draining effort: on soft turf at 1 9/16 miles the description read, "Led, dueled one furlong out, headed briefly, led again on line." It suddenly occurred to me that her trainer might have mis-timed her trip to New York. She might have been weakened by so many strong very recent races. She might very well have passed her peak.

Fortunately, the horses were in the gate before I could dream up any sensible-sounding wager.

In the running of the Long Island Handicap, Moon Queen had a tough time. She dueled for the lead on the outside around all three turns, and faded back to fifth in the stretch. Clement's layoff horse, Summer Solstice, made a strong move on the turn, but couldn't sustain her run in the late stages. Queue wound up running past them all, winning by 2 1/2 lengths, and demonstrating that, indeed, she had no problem with the longer distance.

Just another mind-bending New York turf race. There's no doubt these challenges are stimulating, and occasionally even rewarding. But I've had enough of them for one year. I'm ready for the simpler - if not necessarily more profitable - life on the inner dirt.