09/05/2007 11:00PM

Some days tough to figure


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Not to suggest that making speed figures at Belmont or Aqueduct is always a piece of cake, but I probably speak for a small army of do-it-yourselfers in celebrating the end of Saratoga for another year.

One of the benefits of home-made figures (for conventional dirt tracks) is the knowledge of which days were tricky as far as making variants, and which days things fell neatly into place. On the days where there are no easy answers, I put a squiggly line over the figure to signify the number has a lot of projection and guess involved, and avoid forming strong opinions based on that figure alone.

Saratoga is a tough place to make figures. When the weather is bad, you're dealing with slop and mud, drying-out racetracks, and the off-the-turf fields that go with it. When the weather is ideal, like it was this year, the problem is an over abundance of grass racing and not enough dirt-race clockings to get reliable averages. And of course, a large percentage of the dirt races are for debuting 2-year-olds that come with no previous frame of reference.

For those who rely solely on Beyer Speed Figures, here is a rundown of some wickedly tough days during the second half of the Spa meet, at least for this figure-maker:

Aug. 18: There were five dirt races, including the Alabama and an optional claimer at two miles; good luck with your route variant. After a pair of seven-furlong races as the early daily double, the only other sprint was race 10, 4 1/2 hours later.

Aug. 19: There was a 10-race card with seven turf races. At least the three on dirt were all sprints.

Aug. 22: There were four dirt races, three of which were sprints for 2-year-old maiden fillies. The other was the 1 1/8-mile Albany for New York-breds around two turns.

Aug. 23: Only three of the nine races were on dirt - two maiden races out of the chute, one for 2-year-olds and the other for maiden claimers, and a two-turn optional claimer for older males.

Aug. 25: The problem on Travers Day wasn't a dearth of dirt races (there were seven), but I still put a squiggly line on my Travers figs because the Travers was the only route race on the card. I felt pretty confident about the first four sprints (including the King's Bishop and Victory Ride) that were run on a fast, harrowed surface. The track was fast but sealed for races 11 and 12 in anticipation of an approaching storm, and seemed to slow considerably.

Aug. 30: The five dirt races on this card included four for 2-year-old maiden fillies, one of them for New York-breds in which the 8-5 favorite Farri H. had received a Beyer of 14 first time out. She improved to a 29, more than doubling her debut fig, but fell a neck short of the winner, Cape Cod Escape - perhaps the slowest Saratoga winner in history.

Aug. 31: The three dirt races were all sprints, but not exactly for the most reliable runners on the grounds - a New York-bred allowance, New York-bred maidens, and open maidens.

Longhots, yes!

After a slow start, favorites at Saratoga recovered somewhat but still fell short of last year. The post-time choice wound up winning 107 of 347 races (30.8 percent), compared to 110 for 336 (32.7 percent) in 2006.

Despite the fact that there were 11 more races at Saratoga in 2007 (a day was lost to excessive heat last year), only 288 winners went off at under 10-1, compared to 297 a year ago. Looked at another way, there were 59 longshot winners at 10-1 or better this year - a significant increase on the total of 39 from last year.

More turf racing and increased field size are the obvious explanations.

My vote for the biggest upset: Seven steeplechase races, zero spills.

Belmont begins with a bang

Saratoga is over, but it's hard to feel any sense of a letdown when the first Saturday card at Belmont offers three Grade 1 races - the first time that's happened since the Whitney, Diana, and Go for Wand were packaged together at the Spa six weeks ago along with the Grade 2 A.G. Vanderbilt.

If you're playing the late pick four and make it through the Garden City, Ruffian, and Man o' War, there is still a full field of New York-bred turf runners to deal with. For that reason, I'm planning to thin out in the Ruffian, which is essentially a rematch between Take D' Tour and Ginger Punch.

Take D' Tour prevailed gamely by a neck over Ginger Punch in the Ogden Phipps, but has not raced in the ensuing 12 weeks, while Ginger Punch was dominant in the First Flight and Go for Wand. In the Go for Wand on the Whitney undercard, Ginger Punch's come-home time of 36.33 seconds was .03 faster than Lawyer Ron's last three-eighths, an indication she may be too much for Take D' Tour this time.