08/03/2006 12:00AM

No logical reason for chalk's bull run

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The only thing hotter than the temperature the first two weeks of the Del Mar meet was the favorites.

Jack the Duffer became the 46th winning favorite from only 104 races when he won the first race Wednesday. Possible explanations for the 44 percent win rate include low-quality racing, mismatches, and small fields.

The excuses would be reasonable if they withstood scrutiny. They might not.

The chalk-dominated racing has been particularly extreme in dirt sprints - 30 winning favorites from 62 races. The fact Del Mar relies so heavily on maidens to fill its program - half the dirt sprints have been for maidens - might be one reason favorites are so reliable.

More frequently than any class, maiden claiming races include blatant mismatches such as in the race with Jack the Duffer, who set the pace and tired in his special weight debut. When he dropped Wednesday to $32,000 maiden claiming, skeptics had reason to worry. After all, he sold for $52,000 as a yearling. But at Del Mar, maiden droppers are almost automatic. For example:

July 22: Holy Begonia, who pressed and tired in her special weight comeback, dropped to $40,000 maiden claiming and won at $5.80.

July 24: Imposer, fourth in a fast $32,000 maiden claimer in his previous start, dropped to $25,000 maiden claiming and romped at $4.80.

July 24: Feel the Rush, who had been setting the pace in special weight races, dropped to $62,500 maiden claiming and won at $4.60.

July 30: Cat of Fifty Seven, whose six special weight starts produced three runner-up finishes, returned in a $25,000 maiden claimer and scored at $4.40.

July 31: Artaxman, runner-up in a $62,500 maiden claimer less than three weeks earlier, dropped to $32,000 maiden claiming and romped at $2.80.

It is tough to make money backing maiden droppers at low odds, and even tougher when favorites fire at 44 percent overall. But the dilemma is not specific to Del Mar; maiden claimers are a weekday staple at all Southern California tracks. Attributing the high win rate of favorites solely to maiden claimers discounts the remainder of the calendar.

As for field size, the average at Del Mar is more than nine starters per race on dirt, slightly less than eight starters per race on turf. The combined average after 13 racing days is a healthy 8.7 per race. Field size is not the reason for so many short prices.

Handicappers can be guilty of trying to find a "reason" for a trend that is statistically irrelevant, and perhaps that is case this season. During the ebb and flow of a race meet, favorites have periods of unusually high success, followed by periods of unusual drought.

Over the past 10 years, Del Mar favorites have won 35 percent of the time, and many expect 2006 to produce a similar rate. Over time, things usually even out. The regression to the mean may have begun immediately after Jack the Duffer ($3.20) became the ninth winner at the meet to return less than even money.

Favorites went 0 for 7 the remainder of the Wednesday card, dropping the win rate to 41 percent (46 for 111). Three longshot winners Wednesday included Smoke N Wagers ($96).

Sometimes the issue is not how fast a horse can run, but how slow his rivals run. Smoke N Rivals, a $25,000 maiden claimer in race 5, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:05.09.

That race was a split of race 3, a $25,000 maiden claimer which was run was a full second faster in 1:04.07. If Smoke N Wagers had drawn into race 3 instead of race 5 and run the same final time, he would have finished a forgettable fourth.

If favorites are starting to cool off, bettors can expect more bombers in the third week of the seven-week Del Mar meet. Only five winners returned $20 or more the first week; 10 winners paid $20 or more in the second week. During that two-week period, nearly 80 percent of the races were won by one of the first three betting choices.

Keep an eye on these baby fillies

If there is a 2-year-old filly that can warm up sharp July 23 maiden winner Point Ashley, she might emerge in the Grade 3 Sorrento Stakes on Saturday, or a salty maiden race Sunday. Point Ashley won her second start with a 91 Beyer Figure, and when she runs again in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 4, she may have serious competition.

The Sorrento favorite may be Untouched Talent, who earned a 76 Beyer winning her debut in a stakes at Pleasanton. An 85 Beyer is usually fast enough to win the Sorrento, and Untouched Talent has been working like a filly ready to step forward second time out.

On Sunday, first-time starter Realandspectacular (named after a memorable Seinfeld episode) makes her debut for trainer Eric Kruljac and owner Jess Miller. If she runs as well as she has worked, the Honour and Glory filly could be tough to beat.