11/06/2008 1:00AM

Speed far more effective at Hollywood

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Anything short of clear victory would have been disappointing for race-1 favorite Elusive Pleasure on Oct. 29, opening day of the Hollywood Park autumn meet.

He had everything going for him - current form, proven class, top speed figure, and a beneficial pace scenario. Elusive Pleasure did not disappoint. He set soft fractions in the $40,000 maiden-claiming sprint, led gate to wire, and paid all of $5.

The significance was minimal; the best horse won.

The symbolism, however, cannot be overstated. Elusive Pleasure, a front-runner, wired the field over a surface that more closely resembles the characteristics of dirt than any artificial racetrack in Southern California.

On dirt, speed remains king.

And this fall on Cushion Track at Hollywood, early speed has returned as the principal handicapping factor. The first race of the meet was won by a speed horse, and the trend has continued as the evidence mounts through the sixth day of racing on Wednesday.

Six furlongs: 8 of 11 races won by front-runners or pressers (within three lengths of lead)

6 1/2 furlongs: 8 of 9 won by front-runners or pressers.

1 1/16 miles: 8 of 10 won by front-runners or pressers,

Combined, 80 percent (24 of 30) of Cushion Track races at the most-used distances were won by horses racing near the front. Furthermore, 11 races (36 percent) were won by the speed, a horse that led at every call.

Do the statistics prove a Hollywood bias? It depends on one's definition of bias. Either way, late-runners are up against it. Add the other distances (5 1/2 and seven furlongs), and only 7 of the 36 main-track races (less than 20 percent) were won by a horse more than three lengths off the lead at the first pace call.

The shift in track profile appears particularly extreme coming off a five-week Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita meet during which closers repeatedly won their fair share.

At six furlongs and beyond, off-the-pace runners (more than three lengths back) won 60 of the 158 races on Pro-Ride, a 38 percent win rate nearly double the first six days of Hollywood. Only 15 percent of the Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita races were won by a horse who led at every call (compared with 36 percent the first six days of Hollywood).

A bored horseplayer could chalk it all up to statistical gibberish. Go ahead. But be aware that front-runners are dominating this fall at Hollywood, and the speed of the surface might have something to do with the track profile.

While final times were fast during the Oak Tree meet, late-runners could still win.

Times are even faster at Hollywood, but an opposite profile applies - late-runners struggle. How fast is the track? Seven of 11 races this meet at six furlongs were timed in 1:08-and-change, although the highest class was the $25,000 claiming horse Taxi Fleet.

Taxi Fleet went in 1:08.02, and received a Beyer Figure of "only" 92. (The raw figure is 135; the Beyer variant on Nov. 2 was minus 43. Subtract the variant from the raw figure to arrive at the final figure. In this case, 135 minus 43 equals 92).

Handicappers who compute their own figures this fall are coming up with consistently similar variants. At Oak Tree, the Beyer-scale variant usually averaged in the minus-30 range. At Hollywood, the typical variant is minus 40. It means Cushion Track at Hollywood is roughly four-fifths of a second faster than Pro-Ride at Santa Anita.

And in approximate terms, early speed at Hollywood is at least twice as strong.

If fractions are too fast, speed folds

The importance of early speed is does not mean Hollywood is a paved highway on which winning is a simple matter of making the lead. Two examples occurred early this week.

In the eighth race Wednesday, a maiden-claiming sprint for 2-year-olds, a wicked pace duel unfolded between Cash D Fish and Cesium Fountain. They smoked the opening quarter in 21.53 seconds (fastest of the meet) and the half in 44.29. As expected, both fell apart. Reggae Revolution, more than eight lengths behind at the first call, won it.

In the first race Thursday, a 1 1/16-mile route for $32,000 claimers, Monte Bajo raced the opening half-mile in 45.48 (second-fastest of the meet), and hit a wall. The last-to-first winner was favorite Timias, who was more than nine lengths behind after a half-mile.

Front-runners do still have the advantage, but only within reason.

Swift maiden will be hard to catch

In race 7 on Saturday, an impressive cast of 2-year-old maidens race 6 1/2 furlongs. The field includes $2.4 million Keep Thinking, runner-up in a productive race first out at Belmont; Molten Lava, a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Latent Heat; and The Pamplemousse, promising fourth first out.

But the horse to beat is Gato Go Win, runner-up last out at Santa Anita after setting insane fractions of 21.34 and 43.82. If he conserves his speed slightly, racing over a surface more beneficial to his style, color him long gone.