01/01/2004 12:00AM

Note to self: Things to do more in '04


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - I don't know whether they're technically New Year's resolutions, but here are some handicapping ideas I'll be trying to keep in mind as the 2004 racing season unfolds.

Where Beyer Speed Figures are concerned, make your best projection of what it will take to win today's race, and then consider the following:

* Horses who have equaled or surpassed today's projected figure in a previous form cycle and who have had one or two starts back from a layoff are often legitimate contenders at overlaid odds. Two of the last three Breeders' Cup Classic winners, Tiznow at nearly 7-1 and Pleasantly Perfect at better than 14-1, fit this angle.

* When graded stakes horses have run one of the top last-race figures in the field and are generous odds, do not anticipate a bounce; rather, look for excuses to take the odds. Cajun Beat at $47.60 in the Breeders' Cup Sprint comes to mind immediately. He came into the BC off a last-race 113, exceeded only by Aldebaran (122), who had never run six furlongs in his life, and Shake You Down (115) at 7-2.

And as complicated as turf analysts would like to make it, the Kentucky Derby usually boils down to contenders with solid route pedigrees coming off a fast prep race. In retrospect, how difficult was it to give 2002 winner War Emblem a long look off a last-race Beyer of 112? Going into last year's Derby the fastest last preps belonged to Empire Maker (111), Ten Most Wanted (110), and Funny Cide (110), and you know the result.

* During the early stages of a new race meet, look for horses making the second, third, or fourth starts of their current form cycle who also have won or raced close up on today's surface - preferably horses who have recently shown signs (early speed, a mid-race move, finish within three lengths of the winner) of rounding back to form. Rate them off their better races on today's track, and expect a steady supply of live horses at square prices. Winners with this profile at Aqueduct during the fall, and more recently on the inner track, have been too numerous to name. Expect a similar scenario through the first few weeks at Gulfstream Park.

* Winning horses improve their Beyer Figure an average of 7-10 points over their most recent race. Avoid the hasty elimination of fringe contenders within that range, especially when they are lightly raced, from good barns, and pass muster in other areas.

* Similarly, expect second-time starters to improve several lengths over their debuts, provided the race was not an overly taxing performance. The best candidates are those who flashed early speed or raced evenly first time out.

* Where pace is concerned, look for situations where late scratches dramatically alter the complexion of the race. Often, the prime beneficiary of the new dynamic will be an overlay for the simple reason that few, if any, public handicappers will have mentioned the horse.

* When a pace analysis points to two horses expected to vie for the early lead in a dirt race, avoid the knee-jerk reaction to look for a late-rallying winner. Speed horses win more than their fair share of races at virtually every racetrack in the nation, and the winner is most likely to be the survivor of the duel.

* When three or more early-pace horses are in the mix, particularly in sprints, first look for the "speed of the speed" to determine whether it can relegate the others to chasing. If no speed horse appears dominant, note which, if any, has survived head-to-head pace pressure in the past, or has won by stalking a hotly contested pace. Prefer closers only in the absence of any of the above, and even then insist the closer has shown the ability to reach contention by the pre-stretch call.

* In terms of "reading the track," always remember that early speed is the universal track bias on dirt. Under normal conditions, most racing cards are dominated by front-end and up-close winners.

* Do the exact opposite on turf, and prefer the strongest finishers who have raced against the toughest competition.

* When considering a horse running on turf for the first time, demand at least 5-1 no matter how sexy the pedigree.

* Regarding layoffs, assume returnees to be fit and ready if they: a) won or finished close up as a first-time starter; or b) won or raced close-up off a previous layoff; or c) are from a trainer who wins at 20 percent or better with fresh horses.

Where money management is concerned:

* Make decisions, not selections. If you develop one new horseplaying habit during 2004, it should be the routine of making a betting line for each and every race. Few bettors preferred War Emblem and Funny Cide as "most likely winners," but they were stand-outs on any reasonably proficient line in terms of value.

* Proper bet size is not whatever is in your wallet divided by three.

* No horse in the win pool is worth more than 5 percent of your operating bankroll.

* If you develop two horseplaying habits this year, the second one should be to keep thorough and detailed betting records. It's the best way to determine your strengths and weaknesses, and also the only way to deduct previous losses in the event you hit a signer.

Here's hoping plenty of signers are in store in '04.