09/05/2001 11:00PM

Short-cut to cashier's window at Belmont


ELMONT, N.Y. - I'm glad Saratoga is over. Don't get me wrong, it was a terrific six weeks of racing jam-packed with memorable moments. It's just that most New Yorkers have been looking forward to Belmont's fall meet ever since it was announced as the host for this year's Breeders' Cup.

One of the ancillary benefits of having the Cup races at Belmont is that the connections of many contenders, especially those pointing toward dirt routes, are looking to prep locally so as to get a race over Big Sandy and a feel for the one-turn dynamic. Several high-profile outfits are here for the meet, and so too are Gary Stevens and Victor Espinoza, whose presence, along with the likes of regulars such as Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, and Edgar Prado, will make for one of the deepest and most talented jockey colonies New York racing fans have seen in years.

If the next few weeks play similarly to last year, the jockeying for position should be something special to see, because being in close attendance to the early pace was a trait shared by the vast majority of winners on the main track.

A distance-by-distance review of Belmont 2000:

Six furlongs: 75 races total; 65 winners (87 percent) either led or raced within two lengths of the lead at the pace call (a half-mile in sprints).

6 1/2 furlongs: 17 races total; 14 of them (82 percent) won by those within two lengths at the pace call.

Seven furlongs: A total of 48 races. Speed types within two lengths at the pace call not quite as dominant, but still effective, winning 38 races (79 percent).

Mile: After seeing the nice linear regression from six furlongs to 6 1/2 furlongs to seven furlongs, one might expect the percentage of up-close winners to continue dropping, but that was not the case. In fact, the ability to stay within two lengths of the lead at the pace call (after six furlongs at a mile and up) was close to an absolute necessity. Of the 43 mile races out of the chute, 41 winners (95 percent) shared that characteristic. Interestingly, the two late-running exceptions, Kris Pit ($3.50) and Pure Prize ($2.80), were heavy favorites trained by Shug McGaughey.

1 1/16 miles: Speed was still a prerequisite for success. Of the 28 races at this distance, 25 winners (89 percent) could be found either setting the pace, or within two lengths of the pace-call leader.

1 1/8 miles: There were 10 routes utilizing the entire chute, nine of which (90 percent) were won by those within two lengths at the pace call.

I'm no math whiz, but by my count that's a total of 221 races, 192 of them (87 percent) won by horses within two lengths of the lead at the pace call.

This is a powerful elimination tool, and a handy-dandy time saver! By throwing out horses who lack the ability to stay close early, you can usually eliminate a lot of dead wood, while considerably reducing the time and mental energy you spend in the overall handicapping process.

It may sound hasty at first, but it is really quite efficient, when looked at in the big picture, to throw out 50-75 percent of the field at first glance, because you're only going to eliminate the winner a little more than one out of 10 times. That extra time can be devoted to separating the true contenders, and to putting them in some sort of hierarchy for exotic wagering purposes.

This procedure is not recommended for turf races, although it might work for the one-mile races on Belmont's Widener course, where 21 of 23 winners (91 percent) were within two lengths of the lead at the pace call last fall.

At 1 1/16 miles on the Widener, the percentage fell to 63 percent (15 out of 24) for up-close types.

At 1 1/8 miles on the inner turf course, only 62 percent of winners (16 of 26) were within two lengths at the pace call.

And at 1 1/4 miles and beyond, turf races usually go to the classiest horses with the best finishing kick, regardless of the course.

But you already knew that, didn't you?