11/02/2006 1:00AM

Pick six: Start with two, end with Bernardini


WASHINGTON - What's happening to standards in America? Grade inflation prevails at colleges and universities so that students won't suffer the indignity of getting a C. The point scale for the SAT exam is changed so that almost everybody gets a higher score. And now, the ultimate capitulation: The Breeders' Cup tries to make its Ultra Pick Six easier so that horseplayers won't be so frustrated.

In the last two years, nobody has picked all six winners in the races that make up the wager. In 2003, a single bettor held a perfect ticket worth $2.68 million. As Steven Crist reported, Breeders' Cup officials configured this year's pick six so that it included a race that appears to be a no-brainer - the Filly and Mare Turf - while excluding both of the wide-open 14-horse fields for 2-year-olds. "It's time for somebody to hit it," Ken Kirchner of the Breeders' Cup told Crist.

Instead of dreaming of a seven-figure score, bettors may approach Saturday's card at Churchill Downs like a normal pick six, one apt to pay in five or six digits. It is still not easy by any means - three 14-horse fields are part of the wager - but it is conceivable that a handicapper could win it without making an astronomical investment.

Here is my analysis of the card.

Juvenile Fillies: Against this weak group, Cash Included will probably be the favorite after winning the Oak Tree Stakes at Santa Anita and earning a good speed figure. But she scored that victory with the aid of a racing surface that gave a big advantage to speed horses. In the Oak Leaf, Quick Little Miss managed to rally effectively and finish third. Not only will Churchill Downs be more conducive to her stretch-running style, but an abundance of speed in the Juvenile Fillies will compromise the chances of the front-runners. Listed at 30-1 in the morning line, Quick Little Miss can rally to spring an upset.

Juvenile: This race isn't as wide-open is most people think. Scat Daddy's victory in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont stamps him as the one to beat. The rail was an advantage on the day he ran at Belmont, and a slow pace should have hindered runners coming from off the pace. Yet Scat Daddy rallied wide to defeat formidable competition. I will key him in the pick four and play a Scat Daddy-Principle Secret exacta.

Filly and Mare Turf: The race that starts the pick six is essentially a two-horse race between Ouija Board, the formidable European, and Wait a While, who is 4 for 4 on the grass in the U.S. Ouija Board is more accomplished, but her younger rival is improving with every start. Bettors shouldn't try to separate the two. Put them both on a pick six ticket and lock up the race.

Sprint: Henny Hughes is the legitimate favorite in an event filled with fast, one-dimensional speed horses who are certain to set a torrid pace. Henny Hughes has vied for the lead in his three wins this year, but he has appeared tractable enough to sit off the pace Saturday. If he cannot do so, a stretch-runner could win the Sprint at a giant price - perhaps Too Much Bling, Nightmare Affair, or Malibu Mint. At the very least, these longshots are worth including in trifectas and superfectas.

Mile: The filly Gorella almost won this event in 2005, and she has been running brilliantly in the U.S. this year. Araafa appears to be the best and sharpest of the Europeans. The Mile is always a competitive race, but for pick six purposes I would stand with these two.

Distaff: Although Fleet Indian comes into this event with an eight-race winning streak, she is anything but a standout. She has benefited from easy trips in all of her victories and defeated weak competition in most of them. She is no better than half a dozen of her rivals, including Spun Sugar (10-1 in the morning line), Balletto, and Pine Island.

Turf: America's turf runners, headed by English Channel and Cacique, are a subpar group, suggesting that a European ought to win this race. Hurricane Run has won some of the continent's most important stakes over the past two seasons, and he is clearly the best horse - on paper, at least. But his recent form suggests that he could be on the downgrade. Moreover, the Turf will be his third race in 35 days, suggesting that the Breeders' Cup may have been an afterthought rather than a principal objective. He's the pick - but a shaky one.

Classic: Under other circumstances, a handicapper might try to beat the favorite, Bernardini. He has won six straight races with ease, but he has been dominating weak competition in small fields. Horses with his profile can flop when they are subjected to a meaningful test for the first time.

Yet Bernardini has few legitimate challengers in the $5 million Classic. Lava Man, 6 for 6 this year, has been beating weak competition in California and has never run well outside the state. British invader George Washington has never raced on dirt and is not bred for it. The only real threat to Bernardini is Invasor, winner of three straight Grade 1 stakes with solid speed figures, but he may be compromised after missing his final prep race because of an illness. Bernardini is likely to win the Classic, clinch the Horse of the Year title, and cap the Ultra Pick Six.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post