04/12/2002 12:00AM

Speed, rail biases aren't absolute


LEXINGTON, Ky. - After five days of racing at Keeneland, the broad track bias trends have been established. As might have been expected, the rail is good, and early speed is preferred. But there are subtle shades and nuances to be considered in both of those patterns.

Friday, April 5, was opening day, and track-bias-oriented bettors couldn't have been happier. My experience has been that the term "golden rail bias" is used much too liberally by most handicappers. For me, it takes a very special day to meet the strict definition. The rail must be dominant, not just preferred. And wins along the inside part of the track, from the two and three paths, can't fairly be considered to be part of this phenomenon.

With the exception of the first race, when Bag of Mischief pressed the pace while three or four wide, then drew clear, the rail was golden. And Bag of Mischief was so much the best in that race, his win shouldn't be considered much of an exception.

Saturday, April 6, has been lumped in along with Friday by many observers as another golden rail day, but I can't go along with that. I'll agree that horses who tried to rally five and six wide didn't have much of a chance, and should be upgraded when they return.

But it was the first three paths along the inside that were dominant, not just the rail.

Another mistake that has been made by some observers is that Keeneland's bias at this meet has been confused with a speed bias, which sometimes overlaps with a rail bias, but not always. The results on April 6 show why that assumption is misguided, since there were no winners on this day who led at the first call. Five of the six winners on the dirt rallied from third place. The other was Take Charge Lady, who rallied from second place.

There were three front-running winners from six races on the main track on April 7.

Another winner pressed the pace, then dueled outside of the early leader. Although it is true that Ray's Treasure, the winner of the fifth race, saved ground along the inside early, he didn't make progress until he swung out five wide in the stretch, then kicked home strongly to win. Now that I have had a chance to calculate my pace figures, I realize that Ray's Treasure ran an outstanding race since he defied the inside bias, and did so while gaining ground in a race that contains a faster-than-par variant-adjusted come-home time.

It may or may not be significant that Cashel Castle rallied three wide from fourth to win the Lafayette Stakes, since he appeared to be dominant on paper, and was even more so in the race. However, the fact that second-place finisher Governor Hickel rallied from four wide is more telling. Although the inside was the best part of the track, a good horse could still be effective with a four or five-wide bid.

The first race on Wednesday, April 10, misled a lot of handicappers. October Optimist was the 13-10 favorite. She rated along the inside, made a strong move to assume command, and was long gone. Second-place finisher Chimes Lady was far back while seventh in that field of eight, then rallied along the rail to complete the exacta, two lengths clear of the third finisher. The mutuel handle in the press box figured to be large for the rest of the day, since this appeared to be an early indication that a powerful rail bias was back.

The second race completely contradicted that theory, however, when the first three finishers rallied from five, six, and seven wide. There were four winners who rallied from four, five, or six wide, and three who won along the inside. When the dust settled, the main track had proven to be unbiased.

April 11 was more typical. Not a golden rail, but a strong inside bias. There were three front-running winners from the six races on the dirt. One winner rallied from second, and another from third. And Valid Lightning was along the inside most of the way, when he bid from 10th to win the second race.

The turf course has favored closers, and mid-pack runners most of the time. That bias has been quite consistent so far, and will provide good betting opportunities when front-runners are favored on that surface. They will be vulnerable.