11/10/2003 12:00AM

In the right church, but wrong pew


NEW YORK - You don't have to be a bettor for very long to realize that you will have to deal with your fair share of frustration. For me, Saturday was one of those frustrating days. Please allow me to vent.

The Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap was a decent betting race that became even more playable the lower Yell's odds went. Yell eventually closed at 4-5. Don't get me wrong, she was the best horse on paper from her last-out 102 Beyer Speed Figure, earned in a decisive score in the Raven Run at Keeneland.

Yell has always been somewhat untrustworthy, however. After she teased us with a blowout win early this year in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream, she was a dismal fourth in the Ashland at Keeneland. After she caught our eye by finishing third in a troubled trip in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill, she was a soundly beaten second in the Mother Goose at Belmont. Yell's Raven Run made her the horse to beat Saturday, but her big effort was no guarantee that she would deliver another. And, 4-5 is no price to take on any horse who is weak in the reliability department.

So, in looking for potential upsetters, I landed on the Carl Nafzger-trained Mayo on the Side, who in finishing eighth ran like she had been sitting on the side, unrefrigerated, for a couple of weeks. Instead, it was the other Nafzger-trained filly, Lead Story, who came from last to first to get the money. That I took the wrong half of the uncoupled entry was not the frustrating part.

I saw enough in Lead Story when she was entered in the Gardenia Handicap at Ellis Park in August, which was by no means an easier spot than Saturday's race, to pick her against the odds-on California shipper Bare Necessities. Unfortunately, I didn't see the same qualities in Lead Story on Saturday. Win price: $73.60.

The Churchill Downs Distaff was just a warmup for one of the races I really liked Saturday, the California Cup Mile at Santa Anita. The beauty of the Mile was its extreme shortage of early speed. The one notable exception was Menacing Dennis, who in sprints on both turf and dirt can shade 22 seconds for the opening quarter-mile like breaking sticks. As I noted in my Weekend Warrior column in Saturday's editions, the only other conceivable possibility for the early lead was Lennyfromalibu. But Menacing Dennis seemed faster, plus he was in top form and had the backing of trainer Doug O'Neill, who was enjoying a record-setting meet. Given the lack of pace, I wanted the horse who would be on the lead. I thought Menacing Dennis would be that horse.

And then the gate opened. Lennyfromalibu popped out in front. Menacing Dennis leaned in a bit at the start but quickly straightened out. Then, it appeared Menacing Dennis's rider, Victor Espinoza, didn't seem to know what to do. He could have sent. His horse was certainly fast enough to do that, and they didn't seem to be going that fast. But, it looked like Espinoza was indecisive, resulting in a decision to concede the lead to Lennyfromalibu.

When the first fraction went up, I wanted to lose my lunch. They were walking: the opening quarter went in 23.74 seconds. They were going so slowly that Continental Red, who was coming off six 1 1/2-mile races and one 1 3/8-mile race in his last seven starts, and who wasn't on the lead in any of them, was laying third, only two lengths back. As if it wasn't frustrating enough to watch Lennyfromalibu draw clear late at 25-1, it was downright painful to see Continental Red nail Menacing Dennis in the last jump, and ruin the two-speed number.

In the midst of this frustration comes appreciation for a heck of a horse race in the California Cup Juvenile Fillies Stakes by two very talented individuals in House of Fortune and Silent Sighs. These two were just a half-length apart at the end of a bitter battle that carried them 12 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. For House of Fortune, it was her third consecutive victory from four career starts, and she showed depth by coming from off the pace despite stretching out to two turns off front-running sprint victories. For Silent Sighs, her resilency was evidence of considerable substance as she was jumping up in both class and distance off one lopsided win over maidens.

With Halfbridled around, this is a tough time to be a filly born in 2001. But the chances are very good that House of Fortune and Silent Sighs will enjoy success outside of the California-bred ranks. They completed 1 1/16 miles on Saturday more than two full seconds faster than their male counterparts required in the California Cup Juvenile.