07/31/2001 11:00PM

Small fields big flaw in California racing


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Depending on whom you ask, the best summer racing takes place at either Saratoga or Del Mar. Easterners always choose Saratoga, and those out west always go for Del Mar.

Being virtually smack in the middle of the country, Kentuckians consider themselves impartial, which is why I can say without hesitation that Ellis Park offers the best racing in the country.

Okay, I'm kidding. When I open Daily Racing Form, the first past-performance page to which I turn is not Ellis Park, but Saratoga. Top to bottom, Saratoga offers the most quality and depth of any track in the country.

Del Mar has its virtues. Besides offering phenomenal weather, it also has some phenomenal horses.

The problem with Del Mar racing, as well as with all of California racing, is depth. Many races, particularly high-profile dirt stakes, have short fields.

Take Saturday's Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar, for example. That $150,000 race for 2-year-old fillies drew only eight nominations. Of those eight, six are expected to run.

The field for the Pacific Classic isn't expected to be much larger. Skimming, Euchre, Futural, Captain Steve, Redattore, Dixie Dot Com, and Smile Again are the seven being mentioned as potential starters.

Much of the problem for California has to do with being isolated. Few trainers are going to ship a horse west, if they don't already have a division there. It's expensive.

The Sorrento provides a perfect illustration. Why ship west with an inexperienced filly to run for a $150,000 purse against a beast from the Thoroughbred Corp. or against one from Godolphin?

No thanks, many owners and trainers say. We'll just stay home.

To blame their isolation as the sole reason for the problem would oversimplify the issue. Part of the blame also falls on Southern California horsemen, who sometimes aren't bold enough to take chances.

They could take a lesson from trainer Ruben Cardenas, who ran a maiden named Secret of Mecca in the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks last month.

He took a shot, running against Affluent and Collect Call, but in a five-horse field, what did he and his owners have to lose? Sent off as the fourth choice, she staggered home more than 16 lengths behind the winner.

Yet she finished third and became Grade 2 placed.

Down the road, when she's a broodmare and her yearling is selling at auction, the catalog page won't explain that she was beaten 16 lengths with a 70 Beyer Speed Figure. It will show that she was third in the Grade 2 Hollywood Oaks.

Two-year-old Habibaty bears watching

Although the lack of depth in California is frustrating, there is no disputing the quality of the top horses based there.

On Sunday, Del Mar ran a maiden race that was stronger than many stakes in other parts of the country.

The fifth race on the card, a five and a half-furlong dash for 2-year-old fillies, featured runners from such prominent owners as David and Jill Heerensperger, Godolphin, John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, and The Thoroughbred Corp.

It also showcased Ayanna, an In Excess filly who made her debut in June with a close second-place finish and a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. By comparison, Touch Love won the Grade 2 Schuylerville at Saratoga with a 74 Beyer.

Alyanna, sent off favored, was expected to lead throughout. She didn't.

Habibaty, a $450,000 2-year-old purchase by The Thoroughbred Corp, blew by her with a powerful rally that brought her from eighth to first.

Most successful horses at this time of year are precocious, speed-crazy types. Not her. A long-striding daughter of Tabasco Cat, Habibaty should only get better with added distance and experience.

Look for her to make a splash this fall when stretched out to seven furlongs and beyond.

Keeneland's race-replay kiosks are winners

Did you miss Habibaty's debut? Not to worry, if you're a Lexington-based horseplayer.

This spring, Keeneland added race-replay kiosks that allow fans to view races from all over the country. Stored on computer, the races can easily be accessed in a matter of seconds - either by horse or by track.

These kiosks play a significant role in my handicapping of 2-year-old races, largely because of the inexperience of the starters. I can quickly view the races of the 2-year-olds that have run, and gain insights based on their performances.

I'm sure I'm not alone in using this as a handicapping tool. The more information a handicapper possesses, the more he's likely to wager.

Putting aside the handicapping aspect, these kiosks benefit owners, who might not have been able to see their horse's last race. Or maybe they would merely enjoy watching it again.

Other tracks would be well served by adopting similar race-replay terminals.