02/13/2002 1:00AM

Parade of favorites was abnormal


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Not even Mardi Gras could distract Fair Grounds horseplayers last Sunday.

In a statistical anomaly, nine of the ten races were won by public choices. Only one chalk lost, the even-money favorite Silver Rail, who was beaten by a nose in the seventh, spoiling what would have been a perfect day for the favorites.

What made the results so surprising - maybe surprising is not the right word since the card was dominated by favorites - was that half of those races looked like scrambles.

Yet in nearly every instance, the public settled on the right horse. They chose the entry of Pink Duck and Don't Be Long Z, who finished 1-2 in the sixth; they successfully took Talkmeister as a narrow 2.80-1 choice in the seventh; and they correctly bet down Ruston Rifle to favoritism off a claim by trainer Tom Amoss in the finale.

It was one of those strange days in which even when you tried to take a price, your horse ended up getting bet down.

I selected Valhol in the featured Whirlaway Stakes, in part because I thought the presence of Bobby Frankel-trained Milwaukee Brew and the Pat Day-ridden Drewman would drive up the price on Valhol to 4-1 or 9-2.

Instead, they bet Valhol down to the 2.60-1 favorite. Although he was victorious, the value was gone.

Days like this can be difficult to handicap because the natural instinct is to think that the favorite can't possibly win again. Others who don't think that way look at it from another angle. They assume that the favorite must win simply because favorites have dominated all day long.

But short-term results are irrelevant. If a person flipped a fair coin and it came up heads five times in a row, the chances of it coming up heads the next time is still only 50 percent.

Irrespective of how favorites performed Sunday, it is still best to expect them to win about a third of the time, the typical average.

That brings up another point: the hot-hand theory in athletics. Consider basketball, for example. Most people probably believe that when a player is hot, you get him the ball because he is going to continue to shoot at an uncharacteristically high percentage.

So a 50 percent shooter that nails his first six shots in a basketball game - what are his chances of making his next shot? Most people would guess that it would be higher than normal. But statisticians would state as matter of fact that it's 50 percent.

Statisticians don't believe in the hot-hand theory. Although I don't 100 percent agree in human athletics (never underestimate confidence), I do think the hot-hand theory is an overrated factor in horse racing.

A jockey can't make a horse run any faster because he has already won three races on the card.

In the coming days, being hot might help him by attracting better mounts, but in the short term there is no reason to believe that he should continue his banner day, unless he is simply riding a good horse.

You would be surprised what that can do.

Excitement rises at Fair Grounds

Speaking of the Fair Grounds, I'm eagerly awaiting the final month and a half of the meet. From now until Fair Grounds closes, no open stakes race will be run for less than $100,000. Even better, four stakes - the New Orleans Handicap, Fair Grounds Oaks, Louisiana Derby, and Explosive Bid - will be run for between $350,000 and $750,000, and all will be Grade 2 races.

These races can't come soon enough. Like Gulfstream this winter, Fair Grounds's day-to-day cards have been plagued by short fields and less quality than in previous seasons. This has made for a less attractive track on which to gamble.

Horseplayers can only hope these rich stakes give their racing program the lift it needs.