09/01/2004 11:00PM

Rules of recency have been reversed


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. It also makes some Thoroughbreds go faster.

During the past decade or so, there can be no question that the way horseplayers deal with recency, or at least how they should deal with recency, has undergone the biggest change among all handicapping factors. If there were any lingering doubts, they have largely been dispelled in the wake of last week's Travers result and the results of several stakes run earlier at this meet.

Back in the day, the two bedrock rules for any respectable system were usually a) Eliminate any horse who has not run in the past 30 days and b) Award extra credit to any horse coming off a sharp race in the past 30 days.

Sadly, the cumulative effects of relentless year-round racing, medication - legal and otherwise - and pedigrees overloaded with speed have de-evolutionized Thoroughbreds to their breaking point.

All too often nowadays we are well advised to turn obsolete guidelines upside down. The new order of things is closer to the following:

Rule No. 1: Accept as contenders any horses who have not run in the past 30 days.

Rule No. 2: Eliminate any horse coming off a sharp race in the past 30 days.

Faith in those commandments would have put you onto Birdstone, who had five published workouts during the 12 weeks in between his wins in the Belmont and the Travers. But ingrained beliefs die hard, and the recency issue prevented many bettors, this writer included, from having confidence that a horse could be so well prepared to run 10 furlongs in a top-level stakes with such a wide gap between races.

Nick Zito's remarkable training job notwithstanding, mounting evidence suggests we have a lot to unlearn. A look at some other Travers entrants reveals the following:

* As a first-time starter, and in subsequent races where he had six weeks or more between starts, Purge is 4 for 4, including his top-figure efforts to win the Peter Pan and the Jim Dandy. With three weeks or less between starts, Purge is 0 for 4, including three out-of-the-money finishes. This fact was not lost on Purge's trainer, Todd Pletcher, whose biggest concern heading into the Travers was the quick turnaround 20 days after the Jim Dandy.

The recency issue also shapes the plans for the Pletcher-trained undefeated 2-year-old Proud Accolade, an open-lengths allowance winner this past Wednesday, who could go to the Sept. 19 Belmont Futurity or the Oct. 9 Champagne.

"I think we'll go straight to the Champagne," Pletcher said. "I'll leave a little bit of a window open for the Futurity, but I like the spacing of the Champagne. That race gives me a little more time."

* Sir Shackleton, who resides in the same shed row as Birdstone, returned from a two-month layoff to run a new top Beyer Figure in the Dwyer.

* Suave had also been away for nearly two months when he won the Northern Dancer Stakes at Churchill in June, his first and only stakes win, with a new Beyer top.

Stacked up against some other stakes results, Birdstone's was not the longest layoff to be successful here this summer, and not even second-longest. Praise the Prince won the A.P. Smithwick off a 350-day layoff, and Fait Accompli won the Saratoga Dew off a 219-day layoff.

It's noteworthy that the steeplechaser Praise the Prince won a hard-fought Smithwick in his first official start in 50 weeks. The effort so drained him that he struggled home fifth three weeks later at odds-on in the Turf Writers Handicap, ending the 9-year-old's streak of 20 consecutive in-the-money finishes.

Not technically on the list of layoff stakes winners, but one who conforms to the spirit of this sample, is Midas Eyes, winner of last year's Swale and Derby Trial. Midas Eyes returned from a 200-day sabbatical to win a third-level allowance sprint on Aug. 25, in the process coming within .40 of a track record that has stood for a quarter-century.

A scant 10 days later, Midas Eyes is scheduled to run in Saturday's Grade 1 Forego Handicap as part of a Bobby Frankel-trained entry, along with Watchem Smokey, who has not started in 160 days.

Once upon a time, handicappers might have anticipated a similar effort from Midas Eyes, and perhaps even better, after being merely "shown whip stretch" and winning with apparent reserves of speed. In the new era where less is more, however, one wonders whether a colt like Midas Eyes, a 4-year-old with 10 lifetime starts, has the wherewithal to deliver an encore performance on such short notice.

To win the Forego, he will have to, because also in the field is the Michael Dickinson-trained A Huevo - an 8-year-old with seven lifetime starts - who has not been to the races in 294 days, since winning the De Francis Memorial with a last-to-first run last November.

All systems are "go" for A Huevo, one would have to presume.