10/30/2003 1:00AM

In Rome's the pick to improve enough to win

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I don't make a habit of wagering on horses coming off 24-length losses. But if the price is right, I'll make an exception on Saturday by playing In Rome in the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs.

The $100,000 Pocahontas, a race that has been won in past years by eventual graded stakes-winning fillies such as Belle of Perintown and Unbridled Elaine, is a puzzling race. Half of the 2-year-old fillies in the field are maidens or have won one race, and those with major stakes experience have not run particularly quickly.

That includes In Rome, who was beaten 24 1/2 lengths when he finished sixth of seven in the Grade 2 Alcibiades Stakes Oct. 3 at Keeneland.

Her race was not as poor as it now looks in the past performances. Squeezed a bit approaching the first turn, jockey Pat Day was forced to reserve her behind horses. An experienced route horse easily could have adapted to the change in tactics, but being a 2-year-old making her first start around two turns, In Rome did not. She fought Day, and he had to strangle her to keep her off the heels of horses on the backstretch.

She quit shortly thereafter, which is typical of a young horse in that situation. Day then took care of her through the stretch and eased her across the wire.

In Rome created much of her own problems by being rank behind horses, but under different circumstances in the Pocahontas, she should bounce back with a quality race. The Pocahontas is a one-turn mile, which plays more like a sprint than a two-turn route. Also, by being drawn in post 7, outside most of the speed, she should settle much more effectively.

Although I like that her form is clouded by what happened in the Alcibiades, I am not entirely convinced she is fast enough to win. She has never earned a Beyer Speed Figure above 66, which is far below par for the Pocahontas. Since 1995, the average winning Beyer Figure in the Pocahontas is 90.

But players won't be able to look through the past performances for the Pocahontas and simply wager on a filly with 90 Beyers. This field is slow. The quickest fillies in the Pocahontas run Beyers in the mid 70's.

The key to the selecting the winner is to find the filly who figures to improve the most. Of the last eight winners, every one ran at least eight Beyer points higher in the Pocahontas than she had in her previous race.

If In Rome can run to the talent she showed winning the Pepsi Bassinet Stakes at River Downs, she may redeem herself. She is an overlay at greater than 6-1.

Let's increase maximum field size

There will be plenty of other opportunities at Churchill on Saturday besides the Pocahontas. The 10-race card features a number of large fields, something that has been common this meet.

Churchill averaged 10.5 starters per race the first two days of the meet, Sunday and Wednesday. Barring a barrage of scratches, Thursday's and Friday's cards seemed likely to have average nearly 11 starters per race.

Changes to Kentucky rules, such as allowing a trainer to start multiple horses in a race without their racing as a single betting entry, have contributed to larger field size.

This gives betters more wagering options and greater value when they support one of these uncoupled stablemates.

The next logical step to creating an even better wagering product is for Churchill to increase the number of starters allowed per race. The track should allow up to 14 horses to race, up from 12, in races in which the increased size would not be likely to produce traffic problems.

Races with short runs to the turn would not suit such a change, particularly on grass. But a larger field would not jeopardize one-turn dirt races from six furlongs to a mile.

Donnie Richardson, senior vice president of racing at Churchill Downs, said track officials have considered that change, but decided to wait to evaluate whether there would be any safety issues. He said many of the races that draw many entrants are maiden races, which have inexperienced runners.

That is a legitimate concern, but other tracks,, such as Lone Star Park have accommodated 14-`horse fields, and so, too, could Churchill.