07/31/2003 12:00AM

One angle can be first resort

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DEL MAR, Calif. - A horseplayer would be hard-pressed to find many early-season similarities between the two summer-resort race meets in California and New York. Beyond mere climate disparity - sunny and fast at Del Mar, rainy and wet at Saratoga - the racing results were distinct.

The win rate of favorites was only slightly below normal - 28 percent - during opening week at Del Mar (15 for 52), while a parade of 47 percent chalk marched through Saratoga (27 for 57).

The fluctuations showed in the median win payoffs ($10 at Del Mar, $7.20 at Saratoga), and consequently affected multiple-race wagers. The $1 pick four at Del Mar exceeded $1,000 on four of the first six days. At Saratoga, where the pick four is recorded as a $2 bet, the payoff never did reach four figures, and the average was only $370.

Yet despite statistical contrast, a comforting handicapping angle surfaced at both locales. Opening-week horseplayers at Del Mar and Saratoga were reminded of one of the steepest class drops in racing, one that still packs a parimutuel wallop.

The angle frequently has played itself out by the middle of summer, so it was slightly unusual to see it twice in late July. The class angle is simple - a horse dropping into a claiming race for 3-year-olds, after a satisfactory effort against allowance company, typically holds a clear advantage. It follows a broad premise of class handicapping - horses who drop in class after modest efforts against superior company habitually wake up at overlaid prices.

It happened in the sixth race at Saratoga, on July 25. The 1 1/16-mile turf race was for 3-year-olds, $50,000 claiming. Only two of the entrants were dropping in class after acceptable efforts against allowance company. The other six starters had raced for a claiming price in their most recent start.

The 2-1 favorite was The Sherminator, coming off a third-place finish in an $80,000 claimer. Yet basic class handicapping suggested the winner would be one of the allowance droppers. Daily Racing Form handicapper Dave Litfin picked Aventura Place and wrote he "is dropping into a claimer for the first time . . . series of longer races in tougher company may make him tough to deny. . . ."

Tough indeed. Aventura Place won by 3 1/2 lengths and paid a fat $14.

This is hardly past-post expertise, for the pattern recurs every season. In fact, 3-year-olds who drop into age-restricted claiming races after banging heads with allowance horses - Aventura Place had been facing older - repeatedly hold the upper hand. The qualification is that the horse produced an acceptable performance in its last start by either showing speed or finishing in the top half of the field. Aventura Place finished sixth of 12 in his most recent start against older allowance company.

The class-drop angle was repeated at Del Mar in the fourth race on July 28. The 1 1/16-mile race was for 3-year-olds, $62,500 claiming. Of the 10 who started, only two had been racing exclusively against U.S. allowance company; seven others had raced for a claiming price in one of their last two starts. The other was an English import with utterly modest form.

Devote went favored at 2.60-1, breaking from post 10 after a recent win and second in similar claiming races. Again, basic class analysis suggested the winner would be one of the allowance droppers. I picked Wining Stripes and wrote in my analysis: "Winning Stripes and Unleash the Power both drop out of much tougher races to face 3-year-old claiming types, and both are qualified to win. The advantage goes to 'Stripes . . . He should wake up against this easier company." Wake up, indeed. Winning Stripes produced a furious stretch rally, won by a nose, and paid $13.

As with the Saratoga dropper, the qualification was that the Del Mar dropper be coming off an acceptable performance. In his previous start, Winning Stripes was only two lengths off the lead at the pace call, and one start back was only 3 1/2 lengths off the lead at the pace call in a Grade 3 stakes.

Two other examples occurred recently at Hollywood Park. On May 21, Desert Boom ($11) won by 3 1/2 lengths in a $32,000 claimer for 3-year-olds, the first time in his 10-start career he raced for a claiming price. On July 12, Nighthunter ($6.40) won by six lengths while dropping into a $50,000 claimer for 3-year-olds.

Del Mar, Saratoga, and even Hollywood Park may share few similarities. But opening week of the resort racing season reminded horseplayers that one of the steepest class drops in racing still packs a wallop, regardless of locale.