10/31/2001 1:00AM

Reports of dead rail are greatly exaggerated


NEW YORK - That darn rail! Deep, dead, tiring - many people said.

But just how bad was the rail at Belmont Park last Saturday, and how much did it affect the Breeders' Cup races? How many races would have been dramatically altered? How many different winners would there have been had the inside been fair that day?

None, actually.

In fact, there is little evidence that the condition of the inside part of the track greatly affected the results of any of the Breeders' Cup races despite the complaints of many handicappers.

Here is how I saw the five Breeders' Cup races that were run on the main track:

Distaff: The two best horses, Unbridled Elaine and Spain, finished one-two. Tranquility Lake, although breaking off the rail, ran on an inside path early and was dueled into defeat by Queenie Belle and Pompeii. Those three were the last horses to cross the finish line.

What about Flute? She broke slowly, rushed up along the rail, was checked behind Tranquility Lake, and never settled down. That kind of trip would take it out of any horse, regardless of position on the track.

Juvenile Fillies: Some point to Bella Bellucci's inside trip as the reason for her defeat. But she went into the race with only two starts and never had raced beyond 6 1/2 furlongs before Saturday. She also was in last place a few strides from the gate and made a very early move. Isn't it more likely she simply and understandably tired from her trip than from racing on a "bad" rail?

Sprint: The first two finishers, Squirtle Squirt and Xtra Heat, and the fourth-place finisher, Swept Overboard, ran on the inside. It sure didn't seem to hurt them. This race also refutes a theory held by many early in the day: That the track was anti-speed. Did the rail magically change from a bog to a paved highway for just this race?

Juvenile: Siphonic ran along the inside every step of the way and yet he ran the best race of his career in finishing third. Would he have won had he raced outside? No one knows, but there's no reason to think he didn't fire his best race. As for Officer, this was the first race in which he had to look another horse in the eye. He broke poorly, was rushed up, and was under intense pressure from Grade 1 winner Came Home for most of the race. (He also flipped his palate, according to his trainer, Bob Baffert.) Few horses could have been close at the end after such a trip, let alone a colt who went into the race without being battle-tested. Why would anyone think racing along the rail was the reason for his defeat?

Classic: Was there a horse in this race who was compromised by an inside trip? Include rallied along the rail and finished seventh, but that was no great surprise considering he had flattened out in the stretch of his previous two races and had been beaten by Gander, an 80-1 shot Saturday, and Broken Vow, beaten in the Fayette at Keeneland Saturday, in the Meadowlands Cup. Orientate set the pace along the rail, but he clearly is not in the same class as a Tiznow.

Those who claim the rail was bad on Saturday back up this conjecture only with opinion. Perhaps a horse they bet ran on the inside and failed to perform to expectations. It's natural to seek an explanation for that performance, and claiming "bias" is an easy way out. Maybe they observed that horses were slowing down while running along the inside. Was this because of a dead rail, or because these horses just weren't good enough? Most of the races on Saturday were won by horses running far out from the rail. Is that by itself enough to confirm the presence of a bias?

Most handicappers are far too quick to conclude there is a bias - inside, outside, speed, closer - on any given day. There are many reasons why a horse runs well or poorly. Often, not even those closest to a horse know for absolute certain what happened.

Also, how does someone draw reasonable conclusions from only a few races? Are the results of five races - even the 10 races on a typical card - enough to determine that there is some dominant outside factor that is dictating the order of finish? Ten races, even 20 or 30 races, seem statistically insignificant.

So was there an anti-inside bias during the Breeders' Cup races? There is no one answer to that question, and each handicapper must draw his own conclusion. To me, there is not enough evidence to conclude that was the case.