08/06/2003 11:00PM

Saratoga 2003: Chalkfest under umbrellas


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The dominance of favorites has been the most significant early trend at The Graveyard of Value.

The chalkfest of 58 winning favorites from the first 122 races (47.5 percent) has been the by-product of several factors:

Rain: Persistent and at times unpredictable rainstorms have forced nearly half of the grass races (16 of 35) to the main track, resulting in scratch-riddled cards. On other occasions when the forecast for rain has been pretty certain or when the courses have just absorbed a heavy rain, the racing office has been forced to forsake turf racing altogether and concentrate on dirt races, which attract smaller fields to begin with.

The Pletcher & Frankel Show: Todd Pletcher smashed the meet record for wins at Belmont, and is already within reach of Syl Veitch's longstanding Spa mark. Bobby Frankel, meanwhile, is steamrolling through the stakes calendar to a fourth straight Eclipse Award.

Woe to any intriguing good-priced contender who gets in their way. Through Wednesday, favorites from these two barns were a combined 21-36 (58.3 percent) - Pletcher at 15-25, Frankel at 6-11.

The Big Three: Through the fifth race Thursday, three riders had combined to win more than half the races. The four steeplechase races excluded, Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, and Edgar Prado had won 66 of 123 races (53.6 percent). Bailey rides first call for Frankel; Velazquez rides first call for Pletcher; and defending Spa champ Prado picks up the lion's share of the remaining live mounts.

An in-the-know John Q. Public: Bettors can go to Siro's right across the street and pick the brains of two or three public handicappers at the free Daily Racing Form seminars. In the mornings, the local OTB channel has virtually non-stop discussion, review and replays of the previous day's races, analysis of today's races, and previews of upcoming stakes. There is a daily paddock show in the carousel at noon that is broadcast to simulcast outlets and homes. Before each and every race are late-breaking reports from the paddock. Combine all that with intensive coverage from Daily Racing Form, DRF's Saratoga Players' Guide, Jim Mazur's Saratoga Handicapper, and a dozen or so area newspapers providing in-depth coverage, and the result is an information blitz that leaves no contender's stone unturned.

Favorites are dominating across the board. On turf, they are 9-19 (47.3 percent). In 2-year-old races they are 11-24 (45.8 percent). And though favorites in stakes are 5-13 and at "only" 38.4 percent, six stakes were won by the second choice.

Let's next look at some other areas of interest:

Turf: The new blend of grasses on the turf courses has stood up remarkably well to the rain and has dried rapidly - when given the chance to dry out, that is. Fields are kicking up few big divots even when the course is labeled yielding.

It is admittedly a small sample, but consistent data from the first 19 flat races on grass strongly suggests stalkers have had an edge on both the Mellon (outer) and inner courses.

Only one pace-call leader has held on to win. That is bad news for Balto Star, who pulled off a wire-to-wire shocker at 37-1 in last month's United Nations Handicap at Monmouth, and will attempt to do the same thing in Saturday's Sword Dancer Invitational.

On the other hand, only two turf winners have been more than three lengths off the lead at the pace call, and that is bad news for the Sword Dancer's deep closers, Dr. Brendler and Whitmore's Conn.

The other 16 turf winners were within 2 1/2 lengths of the lead at the pace call. This is good news for probable favorite Denon, a stalking type who may still have been feeling the effects of his Manhattan win on a soft-to-heavy course when upset at 6-5 in the United Nations, and it also benefits Lunar Sovereign, who took the far turn widest of all in the United Nations - his first crack at a graded stake.

Two-year-olds: Pletcher (who else?) and Nick Zito have the best results so far.

Capeside Lady's lopsided win in Thursday's fourth race was the eighth 2-year-old victory for Pletcher. That total includes two of the most impressive colts seen at the meet, Chapel Royal and Value Plus.

Another eye-catching performance was turned in by Birdstone, one of four Zito-trained juvenile winners, who received a Beyer of 99 for last Saturday's debut score.

Pletcher's babies are routinely pounded at the windows (six winners were 3-2 or lower), but Zito's have offered value. Birdstone at $9.70 was his lowest mutuel, and the others were 10-1 and up: El Prado Rob ($24.20), Dixie Waltz ($35.20) and Aladdin's Lamp ($23.60).

As mentioned, 2-year-old favorites have done well at 11-24, but this is a race category in which the tote board can light up when the chalk doesn't fire. Eleven of the 13 non-favored winners were 4-1 or better, and five of those were 10-1 or better.

The only other trainers with more than one juvenile winner are D. Wayne Lukas and John Terranova, each with two.

Through Wednesday, first-time starters were 11-102 (10.7 percent).

Shippers: This can be a gray area, what with so many horses going back and forth throughout the Northeast, so we're talking strictly where the last-race line came from.

Horses that last raced at Calder (0-12), Keeneland (0-7), Hollywood Park (1-10), and Delaware Park (1-25) have been absolutely drilled at a collective 2-54.

Nor has the results from the two biggest ship-in tracks been much to write home about:

Churchill Downs shippers got off to an horrendous start, but had recovered somewhat through Wednesday to check in at 12-83 (14.4 percent). The average mutuel was $10.15. A $2 flat bet investment of $166 returned $121.80, a hefty loss. Remove the top winner ($31.40), and the results are considerably worse.

Those with a last-race line from Monmouth Park opened at 9-44 (20.4 percent). Their average mutuel was $8.26, resulting in a flat-bet loss: a $74.40 return on an outlay of $88.