08/11/2005 12:00AM

Seeing sometimes isn't believing

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El Roblar wins the Oceanside with a performance impressive enough visually to win over many horseplayers.

DEL MAR, Calif. - When the undefeated colt El Roblar starts favored Saturday in the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar, he will exemplify the divide between two schools of analysis.

Some handicappers will recall the seemingly effortless power El Roblar displayed July 20 when he dominated the Oceanside Stakes. Stretching to two turns and switching to grass, the long-striding El Roblar toyed with his rivals in an overpowering performance that is not done justice in the black-and-white print of past performances.

Other handicappers will view El Roblar with skeptical objectivity and surmise that the Oceanside was not that big a deal. It was merely a three-quarter-length victory that earned a modest Beyer Speed Figure of 91 against an unaccomplished allowance foe. What's the big fuss?

Horseplayers frequently come down on one side or the other - either subjective analysis, or objective critique. Neither is right, neither is wrong, and it really would not matter anyway. Except that El Roblar has been dubbed the next big thing. His low odds will reflect his increasing popularity.

In order to resolve the El Roblar dilemma, some self-analysis is required. What kind of handicapper are you, anyway? Some horseplayers can view a race and quantify a horse's ability with keen accuracy, even without the bother of speed figures or class-comparison. Good deal. Visual handicappers will love El Roblar in the La Jolla.

Visual analysis, however, is not the ultimate determinant. Yes, El Roblar gobbles up ground as if he may be a top-class horse, but does it mean he is top class already? Well, not quite. Not yet anyway.

In the La Jolla, fundamental speed-class handicappers will get the best of it because the low odds offered on El Roblar do not correspond to his achievements. To win the La Jolla, El Roblar must improve. This is the point at which horseplayers can find themselves in a jam - by backing a horse at low odds based on projected improvement, rather than tangible evidence.

Visual analysts would argue the proof is already there, and that El Roblar looks and runs like a horse whose future stardom is a foregone conclusion. In racing, nothing is further from the truth. The name El Roblar is not yet written in stone.

While speed figures sometimes fall short in providing the entire story on grass, the rather ordinary 91 Beyer that El Roblar earned in the Oceanside is well below the La Jolla par of 98. Class analysis further clouds El Roblar. His three-quarter-length Oceanside win was over In Excelsis, who had been stuck at the first condition until a nose victory one start back over the claiming horse Cat a Cold Eye. So if El Roblar falls short on speed and class, what low price is acceptable?

Two recent Del Mar examples illustrate the pitfalls in backing a low-odds horse based on likelihood of projected improvement. Rey Lake was well bet to win the seventh race on Aug. 7, an allowance route for fillies and mares. The Beyer par for N1X fillies and mares is 90; Rey Lake's top figure was 77.

Largely because of the impressive workouts by Rey Lake leading to her comeback, she started at 4-1. She got embroiled in a pace duel and finished off the board.

One day later on Aug. 8, the 2-year-old filly Diplomat Lady was well bet to win the Grade 3 Sorrento Stakes. The 62 Beyer that Diplomat Lady earned in her debut was 24 points below the Sorrento par. Largely because of the impressive works by Diplomat Lady before and after her debut, she started at 9-2 in the Sorrento and finished fourth.

In the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes on Sunday, the winner will emerge as a leading contender for the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7. The Futurity is the next stop for impressive Aug. 6 maiden winner Stevie Wonderboy. Based on the 92 Beyer and overall visual impression of Stevie Wonderboy's maiden win, he will be considered a leading Futurity contender.

Closer inspection of his victory gives reason for skepticism. In winning the 6 1/2-furlong maiden race by four lengths, Stevie Wonderboy pressed tepid fractions of 22.71 and 45.85 seconds. The pace was not exactly stakes caliber.

Yet the seemingly effortless power that Stevie Wonderboy delivered beating maidens will be reason for some visual-based handicappers to like the colt's chances to win a graded stakes.

A talented colt, Stevie Wonderboy may win the Futurity, even though that 2-year-old sprint typically unfolds with severe fractions. Similarly, El Roblar may win a turf route for 3-year-olds on Saturday even while facing tougher competition.

Bettors who believe they are sufficiently clever to have recognized future stardom from a promising colt who beat inconsequential foes with an ordinary figure will take the short price on Oceanside Stakes winner El Roblar.

Skeptical handicappers, however, will view El Roblar as an overhyped favorite whose achievements do not match his reputation. If they are right, then the La Jolla Handicap is ripe for an upset.

The question is, what kind of handicapper are you, anyway?