11/07/2002 12:00AM

Speed statistics ring true at the Big A


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - "There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damn lies, and statistics," Benjamin Disraeli said.

The above quote leads one to believe the 19th-century British statesman and novelist spent his share of afternoons at Ascot and Newmarket.

Indeed, Thoroughbred racing and handicapping have lent themselves to numerical and statistical description for countless generations.

No one will ever confuse Aqueduct with Royal Ascot, but autumn at the Big A is annually one of the most underrated blocks of time on the calendar. The fall session annually offers observers of the New York racing scene the chance to rake in some holiday shopping money based on what they have seen during the previous six months at Belmont and Saratoga.

And now that a of couple weeks' worth of results have been tabulated (from opening day, Oct. 23, through Election Day, Nov. 5), there is enough data to formulate a "State of the Meet" address and suggested courses of action for any and all interested parties.

"How has the speed been doing?" is always foremost in a handicapper's mind. As Disraeli would surely have appreciated, statistics can put different spins on the answer depending on how "speed" is defined.

If it is the ability to lead at the pace call (the half-mile call at six and seven furlongs; the six-furlong call at a mile and 1 1/8 miles), then speed has not done as well as might have been expected at the distance of six furlongs, because from the first 28 races at the distance only seven winners (25 percent) had the lead at the pace call, which is below average.

But this is not to suggest that horses who lack tactical speed have been doing well, because nothing could be further from reality.

Stalkers have won virtually everything in sight. If we define speed as the ability to be first, second, or third at the pace call, then 18 of the 28 winners (64 percent) met that criterion.

If we define speed as the ability to either lead or stay within 2 1/2 lengths of the lead at the pace call, then 23 of 28 winners (82 percent) fell into that category.

The above chart shows that this pace-pressing trend has been a constant at every distance on the main track at the fall meet. The chart shows where the winners were at the pace call at seven furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/8 miles.

Summary: Throwing in a 6 1/2-furlong sprint, a total of 75 dirt races were run from Oct. 23 through Nov. 5, and the "sweet spot" in terms of position was that magical 2 1/2-length area. In the 75 races, the winner led at the pace call in 25 of them (33 percent); was in the top three in 53 (71 percent); and within 2 1/2 lengths in 64 (85 percent).

Backing the pace-call leader, no matter what, would have landed the winner in one-third of the races, which is about the same winning percentage of favorites. Many of the winners, obviously, were not favored, so this is an avenue worth exploring. The devil, as usual, is in the details - it's not always clear who the pace-call leader will be.

More realistic is an approach that demands contenders have enough tactical speed to either lead or stay within two to three lengths of the lead at the pace call. Insisting on this trait keeps the eventual winner in the final contender-selection process nearly nine times out of 10, and saves valuable time and mental energy by eliminating a forest's worth of dead wood.

Where on the track have the winners been coming from? On most days, the main track has been like Belmont's, in that horses mired down toward the rail had little or no chance. The most noteworthy days were:

Oct. 23 - Five of six dirt winners raced outside.

Oct. 25 - Six of seven dirt winners raced outside.

Oct. 26 - Morning rain; very deep sloppy track.

Oct. 27 - Drying out; very fast track.

Oct. 30 - Seven of eight dirt winners raced outside.

Nov. 1 - Strong outside closers' bias.

Nov. 2 - Seven of eight dirt winners raced outside. John Velazquez: "The rail is dead."

The turf is another matter entirely.

Logic says that because of the course's extremely tight turns horses with early speed should do well on the Aqueduct turf course.

Wrong, John Deere breath!

Saving ground is important, but on the Big A grass finishing kick conquers all.

There were 17 turf races during my research period, with the winners broken down as follows: Led at pace call, three winners (18 percent); top three, five winners (29 percent); within 2 1/2 lengths, 10 winners (59 percent).

Late-running types have been running amok on the turf, and haven't stopped in midstretch to check their odds on the tote board. Favorites have gone just 4 for 17 (24 percent), and the average winning mutuel has been a phenomenal $25.60, including three winners at 30-1 or more.

Suggestion: Spreading in turf races is an easy way to catch some big prices in multi-race exotics like the pick four and the pick six. That is, if you're still playing the pick six.

As a related and humorous conclusion about turf racing, the following item appeared in the NYRA press notes for Thursday: "November . . . is a big month for setting turf course records here."

That is as it should be, seeing as November is the only full month when turf races are run at Aqueduct.