12/22/2005 1:00AM

A Private Gift-Culinary exacta

Culinary will run back in a short seven-day span. But that's no problem.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Betting the races on Christmas Eve is kind of like picking an entree at a wedding rehearsal dinner or at a company holiday party. Instead of a multitude of choices on the menu, you usually have something like three options - the steak, the fish, or the pasta.

For horseplayers with the itch to gamble Saturday, the same number of choices are available - the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs, Calder Race Course, and Philadelphia Park.

Of the tracks running, I prefer Saturday's racing at Louisiana Downs, because of the $75,000 Truly Bound Handicap. I like two 3-year-old fillies in the Truly Bound - Private Gift and Culinary - with Private Gift slightly preferred because she narrowly defeated Culinary in an allowance at Churchill Downs last month.

Private Gift also might start at higher odds because of her repeated failures in stakes races. She ran eighth in the Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds in the spring, fifth a few months later in the Black-Eyed Susan, and fifth in September in the Without Feathers Stakes at Monmouth Park.

She has been downright snake-bitten in stakes races, so much so that this summer at the start of the Pennsylvania Oaks at Philadelphia Park, the Philadelphia Park starter mistakenly sent the field on its way - before she got into the gate. She was declared a non-starter, and wagers on her were refunded.

I'm hoping she is due a little luck Saturday - or even better, perhaps she can simply make her own luck by running the kind of race she ran at Churchill Downs on Nov. 13. Racing in an optional claiming race that was essentially a three-other-than allowance, she overcame a troubled trip to score a half-length victory, showing determination that had been lacking in previous efforts.

Trapped on the fence behind a slow pace for much of the race, she looked as if she wanted to run over the two fillies in front of her. Once clear, she darted through on the inside, outgaming eventual third-place finisher Character Builder and withstanding a rally from runner-up Culinary.

Breaking from the rail in the 1 1/16-mile Truly Bound, jockey Robby Albarado will have the option of letting Private Gift go up to the lead or to rate her off the pace as he did in the allowance score at Churchill, giving her a similar inside stalking trip.

Culinary will likely prove a dangerous adversary. Although beaten by Private Gift at Churchill, she is a far more accomplished and consistent filly. She has won two stakes, the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Lassie as a 2-year-old in 2004 and the off-the-turf Furl Sail Handicap at Louisiana Downs Dec. 17.

A return on short rest may scare away some horseplayers, but I am not anticipating regression. When a sharp trainer runs a horse back quickly - and her trainer, Mike Stidham, is unquestionably sharp - it typically suggests the horse bounced out of the race in top condition.

It is her outside post in the field of eight that could prove an obstacle. She is known for breaking a bit awkwardly, and the result could be a wide trip.

Of the older fillies or mares in the Truly Bound, La Reason and Ballroom Deputy seem to possess the most class. La Reason, fourth Nov. 24 behind Indian Vale in the Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs, won the Grade 2 Molly Pitcher Handicap in 2004. Ballroom Deputy, meanwhile, comes off a victory in the Grade 3 Maple Leaf at Woodbine on Nov. 12 against 11 rivals.

Despite their virtues, I've always enjoyed playing 3-year-old fillies against their elders and that is why I like Private Gift and to a lesser extent Culinary.

Far too often, bettors tend to penalize 3-year-old fillies against older stakes mares, feeling they must prove they can beat older mares. This creates some degree of value on them, although not as much this late in the year.

My strategy in the Truly Bound is a win wager on Private Gift and an exacta box using Private Gift and Culinary.