03/09/2006 1:00AM

Some improvements take less obvious form

Sweet Belle would appear to need a dramatic jump in Beyer Figures to win Sunday.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Horses are always changing. The problem is when the change is too obvious to do handicappers any good.

The most conspicuous signs of improvement are Beyer Speed Figures, and when the 3-year-old filly Sweet Belle tackles division leaders Balance and Wild Fit on Sunday in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, her pattern will not be ignored.

That's too bad, because when everyone considers the same piece of handicapping information, it loses parimutuel value. Sweet Belle's three-race Beyer Figure cycle - from a 71 in her runner-up sprint debut, to a 73 maiden win around two turns, to an 82 allowance win - typifies a rapidly improving 3-year-old.

Add a brilliant workout last weekend, and Sweet Belle is almost guaranteed to improve Sunday. But before making a traditional horse-to-horse comparison with Balance and Wild Fit, a handicapper must know if Sweet Belle qualifies to win the Santa Anita Oaks. The answer appears to be no. At this early stage of her career, Sweet Belle is not fast enough.

The median Beyer Figure for an Oaks winner the past decade is 97. With a lifetime best of 82, Sweet Belle is too slow. With the filly shy of par by 15 points, there is little need to further examine Sweet Belle. At the first stage of handicapping, which is to merely identify contenders, Sweet Belle is a toss.

While the filly's improving figures are moderately significant, it is not realistic to expect Sweet Belle to improve 15 points overnight. Can you see the trap? The enticing pattern suggests Sweet Belle might be good enough. After all, the 3-year-old fillies this year have hardly distinguished themselves, and co-favorite Wild Fit probably is better around one turn.

A reasonable best-case scenario for Sweet Belle is finishing second to Balance. But there is one other possibility worth exploring if the price is right.

Last month in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, front-runner Diplomat Lady was hounded into submission by mismanaged speedball Meetmeinthewoods. That pace rival is not running Sunday, so Diplomat Lady could find things much easier on the front end.

The Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap for older fillies and mares on Saturday provides another example of improving form, and because of its inconspicuous nature, the odds will be generous.

A changed pace scenario should have undone the 4-year-old filly Play Ballado last month in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes. It did not, and her second-place finish is reason to consider her a candidate to outrun her odds in the Santa Margarita.

Star Parade enters the Santa Margarita as a potential standout, and a wet track boosts the chances of Healthy Addiction. As for 120-pound topweight Dream of Summer, she is nearing the end of her career and appears to have tailed off.

Play Ballado will enter the Santa Margarita as one of the highest prices on the board. Based on class and speed, she cannot win. But unlike the 3-year-old filly Sweet Belle, with conspicuous improving numbers, Play Ballado enters her Grade 1 on an inconspicuous upward pattern. Play Ballado is not getting faster based on speed figures, but her ability to cope with a swift pace last out shows a different story.

In her first California start, on Jan. 15 in the Grade 2 El Encino, Play Ballado chased slow fractions and finished second. It was a creditable effort in which she was beaten by a better filly. Surprisingly, the El Encino turned out to be a productive race.

The El Encino winner, Proposed, came back to finish second in the Grade 1 Santa Maria; Play Ballado finished second her next start; third-place Somethinaboutlaura returned to Bay Meadows and won a stakes by eight lengths; sixth-place Cream Donut Keith came back and won a fast allowance sprint. Perhaps the El Encino was stronger than it looked.

The tip-off with Play Ballado came Feb. 12 in the La Canada, when she faced serious heat. Instead of a 1:12 and change six furlongs, she chased a 1:09 and change. Behind sprinter Seafree, who set wicked fractions (45.48 seconds and 1:09.33), Play Ballado might have surrendered. But she did not. Play Ballado overcame the fractions and virtually reproduced the ordinary speed figure (91 Beyer) she earned one start earlier.

The La Canada marked a turning point for Play Ballado that cannot be overstated. When horses expend more energy early, they usually pay a corresponding price late. The faster they go early, the slower they go late. That did not happen with Play Ballado. She went fast, and ran just as well.

The Quirin-style pace figures, generated by Tom Brohamer, reveal the extent of Play Ballado's improvement. She went from a 99 pace figure in the El Encino to 108 in the La Canada. Her improvement was huge, even while her Beyer Figures (92 and 91) remained static. The pace figures signal that Play Ballado is changing.

Star Parade and Healthy Addiction remain the most likely win candidates in the Santa Margarita. But the improving pattern of Play Ballado is critical, and sure to be ignored by bettors. Play Ballado may not win, but she enters the Santa Margarita as a reasonable candidate to outrun her odds.