07/25/2001 11:00PM

Once again, form is king early in meet


DEL MAR, Calif. - Old-school wagering strategy calls for bettors to wait until form settles down before diving into a new race meet such as Del Mar. After all, the handicapping process figures to be muddled by the numerous intangibles that are specific to the start of a meet.

There is a new surface, over which many horses had never even worked. There are layoff runners, some using comeback races as a prep, some firing with all-out efforts. There are form reversals by horses who disliked the Hollywood surface. There are hot and cold stables and jockeys.

How can anyone integrate so many factors, while simultaneously addressing the basic principles of speed, pace, class and condition? As it turns out this season at Del Mar, it has been relatively simple.

After seven days of racing, the win rate for favorites is a whopping 40 percent (24 of 59). The main track has remained bias-free, comebackers from top barns are firing first start back, form reversals have been the exception rather than the rule, and the median win mutuel has been a soft $7.20.

Horseplayers waiting for form to settle may have waited too long - early-season Del Mar has become downright chalk-friendly. During the first two weeks of the 2000 meet, favorites won 40 percent. The first two weeks in 1999 produced 33 percent winning favorites. In fact, early-season Del Mar is no mystery. Horsemen and handicappers have come to terms with the uncertainty that once accompanied the beginning of a meet.

When trainer Bill Spawr won the first race of the season with favorite Our Man Red, it established a pattern. Our Man Red was making his first start off the claim, and first off a two-month layoff. Five of Spawr's six opening-week winners were either first off the claim, or returning from a layoff. The exception was class-dropper Bafferta. She was returning to a surface that closely resembles the main track at Santa Anita, where she posted her three most recent wins.

Spawr and Bob Baffert were tied in the trainer standings after the first week (six wins each), and both stables are winning with fresh horses. Four of Baffert's six winners were with 2-year-olds, one was a comebacker, another was horse-for-course Stormy Jack.

While both Spawr and Baffert are off to a hot start, everyone knows it. Both trainers have been "exposed," and value on either will be increasingly difficult to find. There also have been no conspicuous bias plays to emerge from a main track that has played fair in the first part of the meet. The strip was extremely slow July 20 and July 25, and faster than par on July 22, but even when final times were skewed the track has played fair. Speed wins. Closers win. The best horses are winning.

While the track has played fair, and favorites have won at 40 percent, it has not been impossible to uncover nuggets by embracing the unknown. Of the 11 winners who paid more than $20, seven were either comebackers or first-time starters. Only one of the upsets - $33.60 Nikawi on July 21 - can be attributed to an unpredictable form reversal. The other three were overlooked for no apparent reason.

Bonotto ($26.80 on July 21) had won three of his last seven, with all three victories coming at 6-1 or higher. Sigfreto ($80.40 on July 18) and Janet ($32.80 on July 18) both had back numbers that compared well to the competition. It is coincidence that Bonotto, Sigfreto, and Janet all scored their upsets on grass.

Odds-on favorites are winning more than their share also - 10 for 13. The losers were CTBA Stakes favorite Fancy Prancer, who locked up a stifle before loading in the gate; a two-horse Godolphin entry in which both horses were making their career debut; and Tranquility Lake, who may be past her prime.

One frustrating effect of the slew of winning favorites has been depressed payoffs in the pick four. The wager is new to Del Mar, and is expected to produce payoffs that exceed $1,000 at least half the time. It hasn't happened. The first seven payoffs in the pick four produced only one boxcar payoff - an $18,580 bomber on July 21. Except for a $479.80 payoff on July 19, every other pick four has returned less than $200.

The bright side is that the pick four payoffs have exceeded the win parlay on every occasion. Payoffs have ranged from 11 percent higher than a win parlay to 95 percent higher. On the flip side, none of the pick four payoffs have exceeded what a mythical no-takeout win parlay would have paid. It takes more than dollars to beat the pick four; a bettor must also use his arsenal of handicapping tools.

This summer at Del Mar, that has not required anything more than standard application of the fundamentals of handicapping.