08/15/2001 12:00AM

The power and peril of predicting early speed


PHILADELPHIA - When your first real success at the windows came at Pimlico in the late 1970's, it is very difficult to rid yourself of the notion that the most important element in the sport is early speed. Despite growing up and actually realizing that the first horse out of the gate won't automatically win every race, it is still difficult for me to shake the notion that early speed remains the game's most powerful handicapping determinant.

Anybody who gambles most days understands. Trainers with large stables understand. Watch how Scott Lake operates. He knows. D. Wayne Lukas, with his Quarter Horse background, certainly knows. He didn't win all those races by teaching horses to rate and make one big run.

There is a time and place for everything in this sport. Nearly everybody would agree that early speed is less relevant on grass than on dirt. Few would argue that it's never relevant.

Sadly, knowing how much early speed matters is no path to riches. There are always obstacles. If this game really were as easy as it seems when your horse is loose on the lead, we all would not be so frustrated trying to master it.

Two major stakes races from last Saturday perfectly illustrate the power and dilemma of early speed.

On paper, the Sword Dancer at Saratoga, like most marathon grass races, appeared to have little early pace. Races like this have been stolen many times by clear leaders on an easy lead.

Slew Valley had nearly won the Bowling Green Handicap on the lead even though he was pressured through pretty quick fractions. If the horse got loose, he figured to be that much more dangerous.

The problem was With Anticipation. All of his best efforts had come when he raced on or near the lead. But trainer Jonathan Sheppard was employing Pat "Wait All'' Day to ride the gelding for the first time.

If you were trying to think with the trainer, you might assume that meant he wanted patient Pat to sit back and make a later run. If you thought that, Slew Valley started to look like a very good bet at 9-1.

When there are only two speed horses and there is good reason to believe one might be taken back, you have stumbled on to a good bet.

Unless, of course, you guess wrong. Day did not take With Anticipation back. In fact, the horse was head and head with Slew Valley all the way around the track.

Normally, that means both horses will fold. Instead, With Anticipation never stopped running and held off the late rally of King Cugat, who got in more trouble in one race than some horses manage in a career. Slew Valley held on for third.

You would think a loose-on-the-lead Slew Valley might be a good bet next time. Unless, of course, the trainer decides that it's time to change tactics and run from the back.

The Gardenia Handicap at Ellis Park was not complicated. There were two speed horses. Asher was close to the rail and Please Sign In was on the outside. A speed duel seemed likely. There was no way to be confident of either horse.

What nobody could have anticipated was what happened at the gate. Asher got away cleanly. Please Sign In was bumped right out of contention.

Asher was loose up top and gone. Please Sign In was eased.

When then are more than two speed horses in a race, you will rarely be wrong to look elsewhere. When there are just two, you need to think long and hard before assuming anything.

Anybody remember the 1985 Kentucky Derby? There were two confirmed front-runners - Spend a Buck and Eternal Prince. A complicated race became easy as soon as Eternal Prince missed the break. Spend a Buck, loose up top, ran the rest of the field off its feet.

I know good players who create scenarios in races with two front-runners that give them a chance if either horse gets the lead or if there is a speed duel. They will bet what seem like odd, even random, combinations. What they know is how much early speed affects the outcome. What they desire is to be in position to take advantage of their knowledge.