09/09/2007 11:00PM

Race strategy mattered most

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NEW YORK - Although it might seem counterintuitive, strategy often plays an inordinate role in races with small fields. Excellent examples were on display in two Grade 1 events last Saturday at Belmont Park, the Man o' War Stakes and the Ruffian Handicap.

Even though it attracted a field of only seven, the Man o' War was very competitive on paper. Four of the seven starters went off at 6-1 or lower, and last-out Grade 1 winner Grand Couturier went off at 8-1.

Yellowstone, off some decent group stakes placings this year in Europe and trained by Ireland's ever-dangerous Aidan O'Brien, wound up the 2-1 favorite, which isn't that short a price for a favorite in a seven-horse field. But as close as this group might have seemed on paper, there was one thing about the Man o' War that seemed a cinch: Unless he fell on his head coming out of the gate, there was no way Sunriver was not going to be in command of the pace.

So that is why jaws probably dropped on both sides of the Atlantic when Yellowstone was gunned out of the gate as if he were running in one of the seemingly endless 5 1/2-furlong turf dashes conducted at Saratoga instead of the 1 3/8 miles of the Man o' War.

It would have been one thing if Yellowstone had been some kind of speed merchant overseas. But judging from his comment lines, he wasn't. Only once in his previous 11 starts had Yellowstone been as close as second in the early running. Otherwise, he was a stone-cold closer. Yellowstone certainly came a long way to be used like a battering ram.

And while the questionable strategy employed on Yellowstone's behalf turned out to be a blessing for the other European horse in the race, Doctor Dino, it did Yellowstone's backers a disservice by not giving the colt his best chance to win. It also made Sunriver's life miserable.

Although he was unable in the late yards to hold off Doctor Dino, who fell into a perfect trip when Yellowstone pulled his rabbit act, Sunriver was the moral winner of the Man o' War. Not only did Yellowstone take Sunriver out of his game by sacrificing himself, but he also put him in tight quarters when he backed the field up entering the first turn. Much to Sunriver's credit, he seemed emboldened when his strategic advantage was lost. Sunriver went up and battled Yellowstone for the lead, and his backers can take solace in the fact that Yellowstone staggered home a weary sixth. Moreover, Sunriver gave Doctor Dino everything he could ask for while finishing well clear of the rest.

While a show of speed was a strategy that backfired in the Man o' War, it was the issue of whether or not to show speed that made the four-horse Ruffian such an interesting race.

The big question in the Ruffian was whether Take D' Tour and Teammate would go at it early as they did when they met at the distance over the track in the Ogden Phipps Handicap in June. If they did, they would be presenting a perfect setup to the streaking Ginger Punch. But since Teammate finished a distant sixth behind Take D' Tour in the Phipps, there was reason to think that even though she is a speed horse, her connections might try something different.

In the days leading up to the Ruffian, Bobby Frankel, trainer of Ginger Punch, was quoted as saying that he thought Teammate would take back this time. I'd like to borrow Frankel's crystal ball for this week's lottery numbers because he couldn't have been more prescient. And the fact that Ginger Punch still won despite a less-than-ideal setup makes her victory more impressive than her three-quarters-of-a-length margin would suggest.

Take D' Tour, an absolute tiger at Belmont - where she notched two Grade 1 wins, a Grade 2 win, and a Grade 1 second from five previous starts - walked through an opening quarter-mile in a sleepy 23.28 seconds when Teammate took back. Knowing that it would be asking for trouble letting Take D' Tour get away with much more, Ginger Punch was sent up to press the pacesetter, gaining two lengths in a second quarter run in 22.65.

Despite being forced into making that premature move and doing the dirty work by keeping Take D' Tour honest, Ginger Punch not only put Take D' Tour away, but also contained a late run from Miss Shop, who was coming off a big win in Saratoga's Grade 1 Personal Ensign.

Carter raised horseplayers' game

One person who would have loved the strategic intrigue of these races was Dick Carter, whose death was reported on Saturday. Better known by his pseudonym Tom Ainslie, Carter, through the publication of his seminal handicapping books, single-handedly raised the sophistication of horseplayers by quantum leaps. And almost as important, he helped remove the stigma that was attached to betting on horses by portraying it as the intellectual pursuit that it is. I remember. Although I had already been bitten by the racing bug, it was reading in 1970, and re-reading countless other times, my dog-eared copy of "The Complete Horseplayer" that cemented my lifelong pursuit of picking winners.

It was a thrill to finally meet Carter in the late 1980s and even more of a joy that he was a nice guy with a wicked sense of humor. For all he did and for the path he paved for other handicapping authors like Andy Beyer, who in turn created another generation of handicappers and racing fans, Carter gave this sport far more than he could have ever taken out of it. And for that, he merits some special Hall of Fame consideration.