02/04/2004 12:00AM

Opportunity knocks out West


BOSTON - Why is everybody complaining about the state of racing in Southern California? That is, for reasons other than that we're horseplayers and so we're always complaining about everything.

I understand that there are many problems with Southern California racing: small fields (shockingly small in many grass races), abbreviated eight-race cards, rising costs of Thoroughbred ownership, declining handle leading to cuts in purses, and decisions by management about signal availability that produce big-bettor boycotts.

Granted, these are all serious problems. But every racetrack has its problems. Every track has its good points and bad points. How you deal with those problems depends on many factors: how much time you want to devote to handicapping; whether you're content just to win some money, or you're out to break the bank; what types of bets you prefer to make; and whether you're fundamentally an "action" guy, or of a more cautious, conservative disposition.

When you compare it to the onerous full-time handicapping at other winter race tracks, handicapping Southern California is almost like a part-time job. Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Gulfstream Park - these tracks make huge demands on your time. If you enjoy that sort of time-absorbing challenge, and if you're getting profitable returns on your investment, then you should certainly continue on in that life-consuming fashion.

But if you enjoy a more relaxed, leisurely pace (very appropriate in L.A.-land), and you don't want to give up your entire life to handicapping, then Santa Anita is for you. And your bottom line could be as good, or even better, than at the other more complex, more demanding winter venues. And why not? Where is it written that you can't make as much money being more selective with shorter fields than with big fields? Obviously, the same degree of action and excitement are not there. But if the stimulus (and the increased psychological pressure) of action and excitement don't produce a compensating level of profit, what good is it?

As for Santa Anita, it continues to offer good opportunities. Last Saturday, for example, in the daily double:

Race 1: Oberwald looked like a solid favorite at 8-5. He appeared ready to earn a Beyer Speed Figure in the mid-80's range, which should be more than sufficient to win. And he did indeed win, by more than one length, with a Beyer of 85.

Race 2: This race was much more complicated, but it set up perfectly for a daily double spread. In this field of 11 lightly raced 3-year-old maiden fillies, not one had run more than two races. There were five contenders:

* An Annika Moment. After having severe trouble at the start of her debut and finishing up the track with a 50 Beyer Figure, she had jumped up to a 74 in her most recent effort. But she had chased and dueled on the outside through that entire race, and lost by only a length. It was a hard race for a young, inexperienced filly. If she could improve on that figure, she would be tough. But she could also regress. And at odds of 2-1, she represented terrible value.

* Susan's Angel. She had run well in New York back in the late summer of 2003, earning Beyers of 63 and 76. If sound and ready, she could overwhelm the rest of this field. She certainly had to be used. But she hadn't run since Sept. 12, so there was a big cloud hanging over her chances.

* Nectarian. She had run two fair races, finishing third both times. Her Beyers of 69 and 66 put her in the mix, especially if the top two should disappoint. And at least she was 5-1. But with no improvement at all in her second race, she hard to get too excited about.

* Prissy Britches. In her first lifetime effort, on Nov. 28, she trailed early and closed some ground very late to earn a 65 Beyer. Then on Jan. 4 she stretched out to a longer route race on the turf. Now she was turning back to a seven-furlong sprint. Her Beyers could be competitive, but her serious lack of early speed certainly compromised her prospects.

* Mme. Espionage. In her only lifetime race, back on Dec. 21, she earned a 67 Beyer while racing four wide into the stretch. She finished fourth, beaten by more than nine lengths. That unappealing running line, combined with her unsexy connections, explained why she was ignored by the bettors. She went off at 12-1, even though only a slight improvement would put her right there with the other contenders.

Two of these contenders deserved greater emphasis in any weighted partial wheel: Susan's Angel, because of her potential explosiveness, and Mme. Espionage, because of her huge value. Mme. Espionage won by a decisive 2 1/2 lengths. The daily double with Oberwald paid $124.60.

Two races later I came across Remo - an eye-catching example of cycling Beyer Figures. After an all-out, head-and-head duel on Nov. 2 resulted in a narrow defeat and a big Beyer of 89, Remo raced sluggishly on Nov. 22. Then he improved to a 77 on Jan. 3 with a wide trip. Any further improvement would make Remo very tough at odds of 7-1. Unfortunately, one of his opponents was a horse named Terrell, who had run once in his life, at Hollywood Park back on June 14. His 102 Beyer in that race would be unbeatable in today's company. Not surprisingly, he was the heavy favorite at 4-5.

Terrell managed to wire the field by 1 1/2 lengths (Beyer 95). Remo ran well for second (Beyer 91). The exacta paid $19.

So you might not always be swinging for the fences in Southern California. But what's wrong with a $124 double, or a cold $19 exacta? Maybe they're not huge, life-changing scores. But they're not chump-change, either. And you log a lot less wear and tear on your leisure time and your mental well-being. All in all, a most appealing and profitable trade-off.