11/08/2002 12:00AM

Speed horses better than usual at Churchill

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When the Keeneland meeting ends, the Churchill meet opens, and Churchill's track usually is less speed favoring.

Typically, bias-oriented handicappers must adjust by downgrading front-running winners from Keeneland since they are less likely to reproduce their success over a Churchill main track that gives off-the-pace runners and closers a reasonable chance to rebound.

At the current Churchill meet, things played out as expected for the first few racing days. Only five of the first 40 races run on the main track were won by the horse who led at the first call. Compare that 13 percent win rate with the 24 percent front-running winners at Keeneland's October meet, and you can see why it was so important for handicappers to alter the handicapping techniques that were productive for them at Keeneland.

One of the things that makes handicapping and betting on horse races so fascinating is that changes in established trends can occur at any time. Handicappers who have their finger on the pulse of the bias can profit by being among the first to realize when a bias pattern has changed. Those who sit back and assume that things will be the same day after day will operate at a disadvantage.

The results from Oct. 31 sent out mixed signals. On the one hand, there were three front-running winners from seven races on the dirt. Premium Saltine galloped by

6 3/4 lengths in the opener, and paid $17.60. For Bailey's Sake returned

$7 in the second race. And Unpeteable was a longshot winner at $32.20. But on the other hand, three closers prevailed from the rear half of the pack.

There were no front-running winners on Nov. 1, but six of the eight races on the dirt were won by horses in the front half of the pack at the first call. That 75 percent success rate was as good or better than a good speed-favoring day at Keeneland.

On Nov. 2, there were three front-running winners from seven races on the main track (43 percent). In Case of Wind won the first, and paid $7.20. E J Harley went all the way in the second at an attractive $15.20. And Vibs paid $6 in the seventh. Two horses who were second at the first call also won. Six of those seven races (84 percent) were won by horses who were in the front half of the field at the first call. That's a big number for any track.

Some handicappers believe that a front-running win by a horse who is a first or second betting choice shouldn't count in terms of bias evaluation since he was expected to be a contender. With that in mind, the $7.20 and $6 winners last Saturday could be viewed as being inconsequential. I understand and appreciate the logic behind that belief. But I subscribe to the idea that wins by horses who only pay as little as 2-1 or 5-2 are still significant. When front-runners are winning only a small percentage of races, some of the defeats are contributed by horses in those same odds ranges. When those horses begin clicking at a much higher win percentage, I believe that bettors should pay some attention.

Last Sunday's results also contributed to the idea that the bias had changed. There were three front-running winners from seven races on the main track (43 percent). Two other horses won from second place. Six of the seven winners were among the front half of their field at the first call, (an impressive 86 percent).

So far, the bias trends have not been influenced as much by track condition as I would have expected. The sloppy track on Tuesday yielded one winning front-runner, and three horses who won from second. Seven of the nine races were won by horses in the front half of the pack in the early going (78 percent).

The exception was Nov. 6. Although front-runners won the first two races, and horses who were in contention in fourth won the next two, closers ruled from that point on. The other five races on the card were all won by closers.

Early and tactical speed prospered on a main track that started out as good then changed to fast on Nov. 7. Two of the six races on the dirt were won on the front end, (33 percent) and five of the six were won from the front half of the field at the first call (83 percent).

Will these Keeneland-like speed-favoring results continue? There is no guarantee, but I plan to do my best to try to capitalize on this new trend, for as long as it lasts.