06/27/2001 12:00AM

Sometimes, it pays to play a must-pass race


COLUMBIA, MD. - It's one of the oldest adages in racing: You can beat a race, but you can't beat the races. This is the counsel of patience, selectivity, and restraint. And it's certainly true that, if you want to be a long-term winner, you have to pass most races.

Take the second race at Belmont on June 22, for example. It looked like the very definition of an inscrutable, must-pass race. At least on the surface. Here are the recent Beyers for this $17,500 claimer at 1 1/16 miles:

* Distinctive Bid: 77-74-79-77-75-78-76-77

* Senor Gran: 79-78-77-73-76

* Jokers Fragrance: 77-72-71-63-78-70-70-75

* Weldlock: 79-77-73-67-70-71

That's four out of the seven runners, and you couldn't separate them with a shoe horn.

Distinctive Bid was the key to the race. Because he is trained by Belmont's leading trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., the public made him a huge favorite at even money. He had won his last two races at the bottom $14,000 level, but he had four big negatives:

* He had the inside post and was speed on a dead rail day.

* There was another speed horse in the race who could very well pin Distinctive Bid to the deep rail.

* He was questionable at the distance.

* He had run in allowance company eight consecutive times before suddenly being dropped to the lowest claiming level - a warning light telling us something might well be amiss. Still, even if Distinctive Bid was wildly overbet, you couldn't profit from it unless you could find a winner in this evenly matched field.

Here are the two other contenders:

* Maybe Jack: His Beyer Figures had recently improved from 60 to 69 to 81. But the two other times he had improved to a figure of 80 or 81 he had bounced badly. He could bounce again.

* Abu Leil: Back on March 25, after a nine-week layoff, he had run a figure of 78 with an all-out effort at

1 1/8 miles. That seemed to set him back, but, after a poor effort at 1 3/8 miles on the turf, he had come back to a figure of 63. If he could improve again to a figure in the high 70's, he would be right in the mix with Distinctive Bid and the others. At 15-1, he was big value.

The race quickly turned into a perfect setup for a closer like Abu Leil. Distinctive Bid dueled for the lead right alongside Maybe Jack, and they fought it out in rapid fractions of 22.46 and 44.85 seconds. Senor Gran moved first, passed the tiring leaders, and took the lead in midstretch, with Abu Leil plodding along a few lengths behind him, but gaining ground only slowly.

Then he got into a bit of a box, altered course to the outside, and continued his one-paced progress until he finally fell short by a neck behind Senor Gran. The Beyer Speed Figure was 84. For those players wise enough to use him first and second, Abu Leil completed a $122.50 exacta and was part of a $667 triple.

Later that same day an almost identical situation arose in the ninth race at Pimlico - only this time the contenders' Beyers congregated around the upper 40's and lower 50's. But there was one horse, Ivars Heart o Gold, with an Abu Leil-like cycling pattern. And he had the invaluable rail post around two turns at Pimlico. At odds of 8-1 the shrewd player could use him first and second, and shoot for another big-priced exacta in a seemingly inscrutable race.

Ivars Heart o Gold moved up steadily on the rail and drew off to an easy

6 1/2-length win. And a 12-1 shot finished second, setting up a big payoff.

Unfortunately, Raymond Torres, Ivars's ten-pound apprentice jockey, paused long enough at the top of the stretch to experiment with his right-handed whip, which caused Ivars Heart * Gold to take a sharp left turn and bounce off the front-runner he was leaving for dust. He was disqualified and placed fourth.

That should remind us of another old adage of the game: Even when you're right, you can still find yourself tearing them up.