11/05/2004 12:00AM

So far, speed is a need at Churchill

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LOUISVILLE, KY. - With four days of the Churchill fall meet in the books through Thursday, it is time to get a handle on the emerging track bias trends and to compare them with what we saw at Keeneland.

When the dust settled at Keeneland, horses who led at the first call won 26 percent of the races, and horses who were in the front half of their field at that point won 73 percent of the races. Those numbers were a shade below average for Keeneland, but horses with early and tactical speed were still much more effective than mid-pack runners and closers.

The large fields we have seen so far at Churchill have had a significant impact on the pace scenarios in those races. Nearly one out of every four races on the main track has had either 13 or 14 starters. Another 13 percent of the races offered fields of 11 or 12 horses. The win percentage of front-runners has declined to 19 percent, partly because of the increased pace pressure often seen in larger fields and partly because there are simply more mid-pack runners and closers to deal with than there were in the smaller fields at Keeneland.

The more fair comparison, which adjusts for the increased number of competitors, is the percentage of winners from the front half of the field vs. the rear half. At Churchill, 67 percent of the winners on the dirt were located in the front half at the first call, a 6 percentage point drop from Keeneland's 73 percent. Even so, the value of early speed is underlined by the fact that those front-runners have been almost exactly break-even as a betting proposition, with $74.20 in payoffs from 37 races.

As far as individual-day biases, horses with tactical speed had all the best of it Sunday, opening day. Although there was just one front-running winner from the seven races on the main track, another three winners were second at the first call. Five of the seven winners were among the first three to the first call, and six of the seven were among the first four.

There were three turf races opening day. The 1 1/16-mile race was won by a horse who was seventh of nine at the first call. The mile race was won by a closer who rallied from 11th in a 12-horse field; the closer was helped by aggressive fractions of 46.54 seconds and 1:11.74 on a course that was rated good. The 1 3/8-mile turf race was won by Sky Brio, who led early and then was a close second behind a 43-1 longshot before he regained the lead and held on to prevail by a half-length. The slow pace of 1:16.61 for six furlongs made his task much easier.

Horses with early speed had their best day on raw numbers Tuesday. Four of the 10 main-track races were won by the first call leader, and 6 of the 10 were won by horses who were either first or second at that point. To be fair, the four front-runners were chalky at $3, $3.40, $4.80, and $8.40. But it is still significant that 6 of the 10 winners were first or second early. In contrast, there was just one winning closer who was last or next to last at the first call.

If you are looking for a day when front-runners struggled at Churchill, it was Wednesday. None of the 10 won, and just as many winners came from the rear half of the field at the first call as the front half.

I'll give some extra credit to Pyramid Performer, who led most of the way and was tagged in the last few strides in the third, a six-furlong $30,000 N2L. He finished second, just a neck behind the 5-2 favorite, and can beat a similar field if the bias is kinder to him. I will also be looking out for U.S.S. Boxer, a 2-year-old filly who made his debut for Dale Romans in the 10th, a six-furlong maiden special. This 24-1 longshot tracked the 7-2 second betting choice in second, poked her head in front in mid-stretch, then was outkicked by a closer who rallied from ninth. U.S.S. Boxer was second and should be a threat to win her maiden next time.

Tactical speed was preferred Thursday. Two winners led at the first call, and 6 of the 10 main-track winners were among the first three at that point. Eight of the 10 winners were among the first four. The lone winner who was worse than fifth at the first call rallied from 11th in a field of 14.