04/09/2008 11:00PM

Separating two closely matched fillies

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - For students of form, the most interesting aspect of Saturday's Comely Stakes at Aqueduct is a classic handicapping comparison of fractional and final times, specifically those of Lady Chace and Zaftig in their seven-furlong wins at Gulfstream Park. Both scored in dominating fashion after pressing the pace, and they ran virtually identical final times (1:23.17 vs. 1:23.12), but the interesting part is how they got there.

The fractions in Lady Chace's race: 22.12, 44.62, 1:09.67, 1:23.17.

The fractions in Zaftig's race: 22.69, 46.28, 1:11.06, 1:23.12.

The Gulfstream track was rated approximately four lengths slower for Lady Chace's race (she received a Beyer Speed Figure of 94 compared to an 85 for Zaftig). That makes the difference in the internal fractions all the more remarkable:

The individual splits in the Lady Chace race: 22.12, 22.50, 25.05, 13.50.

The individual splits in the Zaftig race: 22.69, 23.59, 24.78, 12.06.

Zaftig ran her seventh furlong in just over 12 seconds, prompting this reaction from her trainer, Jimmy Jerkens: "I really liked the way she finished up."

Lady Chace decelerated late, but only after expending a considerable amount of energy through the early fractions, which were set by Melissa Jo, a 2-5 shot coming off three consecutive in-the-money finishes in Gradeo2 stakes.

Stepping up from a maiden win on Saturday, the key for Zaftig will be how she reacts to a faster pace.

Lady Chace has already established the ability to handle a fast pace. The key for her is how she reacts off a significant Beyer top on four weeks' rest.

On dirt tracks such as the one at Aqueduct, conventional wisdom in the above situation favors the Lady Chace types coming out of faster-paced races. Races are typically won by horses that can separate themselves from the pack in the early to middle stages.

That was the time-honored strategy on Keeneland's old conveyor belt, but things have changed dramatically since they paved paradise and put up a Polytrack. Zaftig might indeed be accorded the edge if the Comely were at Keeneland, where the ability to rate and finish is crucial to success on synthetic surfaces.

Handicapping the Premier Pick 4

The ability to finish will be paramount in the Commonwealth at Keeneland, which is the first leg of Saturday's Premier Pick 4, a sequence that continues with the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Instant Racing and Arkansas Derby t Oaklawn.

The Premier Pick 4 has been well worth exploring in recent years. In 2005, the combination was worth $2,532, or nearly three times the parlay. In 2006, the payoff was $3,062 even with Lawyer Ron ($3) in the anchor leg. Last year the bet paid $3,132 even with Curlin ($3.60) as an appealing single.

Let's take a look.

Commonwealth (4:40 p.m.): Silent Name ($14.40) led a one-two-three sweep for turf-to-Poly runners, with Lewis Michael (15-1) and Steel Light (5-1) filling out a $1,242 trifecta last year.

Four entrants come off turf races this time, among them a potential stickout in Thousand Words.

Thousand Words is a short-term trainer pattern match to Ventura ($10), a Juddmonte Farms import who moved forward off a turf victory against third-level allowance rivals at Santa Anita to win Wednesday's Grade 2 Madison with a huge stretch run for trainer Bobby Frankel.

Thousand Words got synthetic experience in a tough spot first out in the U.S. behind Well Armed (winner of the San Antonio and necked for second after setting the pace in the Dubai World Cup) and Heatseeker, who returned to win the Big Cap.

Importantly, Thousand Words displayed a sharp move through the third quarter of his last-out turf win. Closers with the ability to attain striking position at the pre-stretch call are dangerous in most situations, but they are absolutely deadly on Polytrack.

Blue Grass (5:18 p.m.): The five fastest horses - Pyro, Cool Coal Man, Visionaire, Big Truck, and Cowboy Cal - have never run on synthetic. Moreover, Pyro will not be fully cranked, and it is easy to envision the race unfolding through 2007-like fractions of 26.12, 51.46, and 1:16.65, with a last three-eighths in 34.68 or so.

I'd use those five, and also throw in the late-running Monba, who has impressed in both of his synthetic starts. He's had throat surgery since a rough trip in the Fountain of Youth.

Instant Racing (6:08 p.m.): Sky Mom (82, 85 Beyers) and Oh Lovely (83) are fastest, but only slightly over Spirit Line, Euphony, Day of Victory, Eagle's Song, and Sweet Redeember, all with Beyer tops of 78 to 80.

The Instant Racing winner has produced a double-digit winner each of the past three years, including Cream Only ($63.20) last year, and looks like a spread situation again.

Arkansas Derby (6:44 p.m.): Afleet Alex ($6.80), Lawyer Ron, and Curlin scored emphatic wins the last three years, but this year's renewal stands in stark contrast as a cavalry charge in the making.

I have no idea how Gayego's close-up second in a slow-paced San Felipe translates for his first race on dirt Saturday, nor do I have a clue as to whether My Pal Charlie, the pacesetting runner-up at 60-1 in the Louisiana Derby, is for real.

That's okay, though. Neither does anybody else.