12/11/2003 1:00AM

Speed points identify those front-end winners

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - They say timing is everything, and so it was that last weekend's snowstorm wiped out 26 races from Friday through Sunday, which meant that suddenly there was time to catch up on old-fashioned pasttimes.

Like reading. Remember reading, as in, like, books and stuff?

And what should come in the mail on that snowy Saturday morning ("Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from their appointed rounds") but a copy of the newly released "The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping," revised, updated and expanded by James Quinn, the undisputed dean of the field.

Hooray for snow!

As fate also would have it, I was driving home Friday night (slowly), thinking about how there had been six wire-to-wire winners on the Thursday card at Aqueduct, which was the second of 68 scheduled programs on the inner track, and what a good and timely thing it would be to brush up on Bill Quirin's "speed points."

And to my unmitigated delight, what do you suppose is Chapter 1 of Quinn's expanded anthology, representing 21 authors and 27 books and articles, and encompassing 49 chapters and 316 pages all told?

Speed points! Numero uno!

I'm glad I read it again, too, because wouldn't you know that when racing resumed Wednesday on the frozen tundra, no less than seven winners either led or raced in second position at the first call. Find the horses on or near the lead, and half the battle is over on the inner dirt, especially in the sprints, which are all six furlongs.

Here is the formula for sprints, points assigned for three recent qualifying races:

* 1 point for any sprint where the horse was one-two-three at the first call, and;

* 1 point for any sprint in which the horse led or was within two lengths of the lead at the first call.

* 0 points for any other sprint.

* 0 points for any route, unless the horse was within one length at the first call, in which case the race is passed over.

(At seven furlongs, a horse is eligible for 2 points only if he led at the first call.)

Each horse starts with 1 point, which is added to the three-race total for a rating between 1 and 7. Award 1 bonus point to horses that led or raced within a neck of the lead at the first call of all three rated races, for a maximum total of 8. If the horse has been in the rear half of the field in the rated races, deduct the initial 1 point for a 0 rating.

For routes, the procedure differs slightly:

* 1 point for any route in which the horse was one-two-three at the first call, and;

* 1 point for any route in which the horse was within three lengths at the first call.

* 0 points for any other route.

* 1 point for any sprint in which the horse ran one-two-three or within three lengths at the first call, and/or;

* 1 point for any sprint in which the horse was within six lengths of the lead at the first call.

Applying speed points is absolutely the best way to begin a thorough pace analysis, and rest assured that during the winter season at Aqueduct, pace moves to the forefront in the majority of races, many of which, beginning New Year's Day, will be claimers for newly turned 3-year-olds.

There will be many days, like Thursday, when speed is supremely dominant on the inner track. Beginning the pace analysis by assigning speed points will paint a clear picture of how races are likely to develop. Many times, horses with an early-pace advantage will win, regardless of whether rivals own superior final-time figures.

Optional claimers come to NYRA

In addition to producing six front-running winners, Aqueduct's card of Thursday, Dec. 4, was significant because of the featured eighth race, which was the first optional claiming race ever run on the NYRA circuit. The sprint had these conditions: "For 3-year-olds and up which have not won either $18,000 twice other than maiden, claiming, starter, or restricted since Aug. 15, or which have never won four races other than maiden, claiming, starter, or restricted, or optional claiming price of $75,000."

The race drew an intriguing field of eight, ranging from Multiple Choice, a returnee who had run exclusively in graded stakes since the summer of 2002, to the speedy Crossing Point, the pacesetter in last month's Grade 1 De Francis Dash, to Final Table, who three races back had been claimed for $55,000. The entrants came off last-race running lines at Philadelphia Park, The Meadowlands, Aqueduct's main track, Belmont, and Laurel, and was won in front-running style (of course!) by Kazoo, who had been claimed for $100,000 at Saratoga.

"Optional claimers can help because sometimes the high-priced claiming races don't fill," explained NYRA racing secretary Mike Lakow. "This gives horsemen the option to run those horses in more spots. Last year we had 600 empty stalls, and this year we're packed. These changes will help fill races with horses from New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New England."

To get a handle on which allowance and claiming levels are comparable, par times such as those available from HorseStreet Publications (www.horsestreet.com) reveal that allowance races for non-winners of three "other than" are equivalent to $75,000 open claimers; non-winners twice "other than" correspond to $50,000 claiming; and entry-level allowances are about as strong as $35,000 stock.

There are myriad nuances concerning optional claimers, which, happily, are covered by Quinn in Chapter 44 - "Updates on the Class, Speed and Pace Factors."

The best revision since Steve Davidowitz's update of "Betting Thoroughbreds" in 1995, "The Best of Thoroughbred Handicapping" is timely and essential reading from start to finish.