01/30/2006 12:00AM

Open test won't be as sunny for some


NEW YORK - One of the more difficult components of handicapping is deciding what to do with horses who show sharp recent form in statebred races when they go up against open company.

Situations like this frequently arise, even in such major racing centers as New York and Southern California. Several times a week in New York, for example, bettors might encounter a horse who has run through his statebred allowance conditions or who may be a statebred stakes winner moving into an entry-level allowance race against open company. Usually, the conditions of these races disregard achievement in statebred races (as well as claiming races) in determining eligibility. Since these statebred multiple winners will be facing competition of predominantly maiden winners, they automatically command extra attention.

Speed figures can help, because they can suggest whether a statebred horse is simply too slow to compete even if he is a multiple winner. You might think that if this is true, then the opposite should be true as well, and that speed figures will tell you that a statebred moving in against open company is fast enough to win. That might be true occasionally, but it's more complicated than that. One of the most important things to remember when using speed figures in handicapping is that horses will earn big numbers when they enjoy optimal conditions. Optimal conditions, however, do not just mean lone speed on a speed-favoring track. A statebred who is just that much better than his statebred competition also enjoys optimal conditions, and his speed figures could be a reflection of that. If this horse is looked in the eye longer by open-company horses, even less accomplished ones, the optimal conditions are no more, and his speed figures could drop through the floor. This can be a tricky thing.

The Sunshine Millions has brought this handicapping problem into a new arena, that of upper-class stakes racing. Of course, technically speaking, the eight Sunshine Millions races run last Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita were restricted races, not statebred races. But since they were races restricted to California-breds and Florida-breds, the Sunshine Millions races were as close as they can get to being statebred races - albeit rich ones - without actually being statebred races. When most, if not all, of the Sunshine Millions winners race back, they will do so against open company in quality stakes. And when they do, horseplayers will have the old "statebred into open company" issue to deal with again.

None of Saturday's Sunshine Millions winners exemplifies this quandary better than Lava Man, who will almost certainly tackle high-level graded-stakes company in his next start after winning the Sunshine Millions Classic at Santa Anita.

Lava Man proved in the past that he could win going from California-bred events into open races. In fact, after losing in last year's Sunshine Millions Classic and two subsequent statebred stakes, Lava Man, with the addition of blinkers, won three straight races over open company. Two of them were strong wins in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup, and he followed with a three-quarter-length defeat in the Pacific Classic. In the wake of his 2 1/4-length score Saturday, it may seem Lava Man is back in top form and ready to move into top-class races against open company again, but I'm not so sure.

First, Lava Man does deserve credit for being the only horse near to the Classic's insane early pace to be even remotely close at the finish (the early fractions for this 1 1/8-mile race were 21.88 seconds, 44.84, and 1:08.69). But this Classic, as the fractions suggest, was a race that fell completely apart. The final three-eighths of a mile was run in an interminable 41.29. Lava Man only ran fast enough to earn a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 98. It is quite likely that Lava Man won primarily because he was that much better than those who opposed him Saturday. In this regard, the conditions for Lava Man on Saturday were optimal. It's a lot to ask that conditions will be as favorable next time.

On the other side of the coin was House of Fortune, winner of the Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream. Like Lava Man, House of Fortune won over open company in graded stakes in the past. And like Lava Man, she was isolated at the finish from the others who were involved in an honest early pace in her race. Unlike Lava Man, House of Fortune did not need to capitalize on a race that fell apart. Instead, she drew away strongly through the stretch, running fast enough to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, and gave the strong impression that a solid open stakes race next time out would not be out of her range.