07/07/2003 11:00PM

Rename him 'Unpredictable'

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BOSTON - Some Thoroughbreds find their way to the racetrack with one evil purpose in mind: to frustrate and torment the poor struggling handicapper. Or so it seems with certain horses. And, at least for me, there's no more exasperating perpetrator of this kind of torture than the talented but erratic 5-year-old gelding Balto Star.

Early in his 3-year-old season Balto Star flashed brilliant speed and ran some eye-catching big Beyer Figures. Unfortunately, he had a fatal flaw. Like the Cowardly Lion, he lacked courage. When loose on the lead, he looked like a champion. But when someone threw a straw in his path, he couldn't quit fast enough.

Later in his 3-year-old year he began to show signs of maturity. Balto Star even showed an occasional willingness to persevere when things did not go his way. When he returned as a 4-year-old, he established himself as a solid if unspectacular runner, competitive at Grade 2 and Grade 3 levels, more versatile and rateable in the early going, and capable of winning on dirt or turf.

But Balto Star still had two serious weaknesses. He continually finished way up the track in Grade 1 company (except in the 2002 Man o' War, when he held on for second after he was allowed to waltz the early fractions in 51 seconds, 1:16), and he suffered recurring episodes of his old collapse-under-pressure affliction when circumstances went against him. Still, Balto Star was somewhat more reliable, if not more talented, than in his less mature days.

My first run-in with Balto Star happened in the middle of May. The day before this year's Preakness, I participated in a seminar at Pimlico, where we were to offer our selections for the big race. Since that boiled down to only slim pickings between Funny Cide and Peace Rules, we threw in our choices for the Black-Eyed Susan and the Pimlico Special. I wanted to show a little flair, so, with considerable trepidation, I decided to point up the merits of Balto Star in the Grade 1 Special. Mineshaft's star was rising at this point, and he certainly would be a tough favorite to beat. Western Pride would probably control the pace, so he could also be tough. And conditions were rapidly deteriorating as a steady heavy rain turned the Pimlico strip into the proverbial sea of slop.

But I still thought Balto Star, breaking from the inside, could sit in the pocket behind the speed and benefit from a perfect trip. And he would be a decent price. In addition, I was at Pimlico to promote a book on the Beyer Speed Figures, and I liked Balto Star's speed-figure pattern.

On Feb. 9, Balto Star had run the best race of his life. At Fair Grounds he had chased the pace and blown past the leader to draw off and win by 2 1/2 lengths, earning a Beyer of 111. After this exhausting effort he was only capable of an 88 in his next start. But he then improved to a 104 in the Excelsior at Aqueduct. If Balto Star continued to improve his Beyers back up toward that 111, I thought he could be in the mix in the Pimlico Special at odds of 5-1. But, as I was reminded by another member of the seminar panel, this was Balto Star we were talking about. "Reliable" was still not exactly his middle name. So no other panel member was anxious to join me out on this very shaky limb.

As soon as the gates opened in the Special, my clever selection turned into instant embarrassment. Jockey John Velazquez, as is his wont, rushed Balto Star to the lead. Racing in deep slop, on a bad rail, and under pressure from Western Pride, this was not exactly the scenario I had anticipated for Balto Star. In fact, he never even made it to the end of the backstretch. When Western Pride moved up alongside him, he eagerly threw in the towel. He quickly backpedaled out of the race, ending up last, more than 30 lengths out of it. Same old Balto Star, I thought. When the going gets tough, he gets going - in reverse!

One month later Balto Star showed up at Monmouth for the Grade 3 Oceanport on the turf. The race was taken off the grass and reduced to a field of six. If you could throw out Balto Star's miserable performance in the slop at Pimlico, you might still project him to cycle up to a stronger effort. At 2-1 he might be worth a play. Unfortunately, he ended up dueling for the lead in a relatively fast pace through the entire 1 1/16 miles. Under these less-than-ideal circumstances he couldn't hang on, and his Beyer only improved to a 99. Runspastum, a nice. classy closer, beat him by 1 3/4 lengths. While Balto Star hadn't packed it in completely, still, that was enough of him for me for a while.

Last weekend, Balto Star showed up again on the Jersey Shore, ambitiously placed in the Grade 1 United Nations Handicap. He faced a strong field headed by two Bobby Frankel-trained stars, Requete and Denon. There was also a speed horse from California named The Tin Man, who appeared to guarantee that there would be an honest pace and that no other horse could steal off in slow fractions. It didn't look like a very good setup for Balto Star.

We have all seen this sort of thing before. There seems to be an inevitability about it, aided and abetted by an inexplicable passivity among the best professional riders, even with $750,000 up for grabs. Mike Smith, riding The Tin Man, conceded the front, content to rate in second place. Everybody else throttled down their runners.

Except for Jose Velez Jr. He put Balto Star on the lead and loafed around the turf course setting ridiculously slow fractions. As a result, Requete and Denon got clogged up on the rail behind the snail's pace and couldn't get out of their boxes until it was too late. So Balto Star was able to summon all his courage and hold on to win by a desperate half-length. He set a course record. He paid $76 to win. And he finally cycled all the way back up to a 108 Beyer. For me, obviously, it was one or two races too late.

In handicapping, as in life, timing is critical. But only a mystic could possibly know when it's Balto Star's time.