09/01/2004 12:00AM

Supertrainer or just a savvy guy?


LAS VEGAS - If you've been absorbed in Saratoga and Del Mar for the past few weeks, you might have missed the latest supertrainer sighting - this one, not surprisingly, at Delaware Park. At least it appears to be another supertrainer sighting.

Here's the case for Howard Wolfendale, sudden superstar:

Squaw Valley. Wolfendale claimed this filly on July 4 for $10,000. Up to that point her lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure had been a 70. But when Wolfendale immediately dropped her down to $5,000 in her next start, she turned in a blowout performance, winning by more than eight lengths with a Beyer of 91. In her next start, for $12,500, she won again by more than five lengths with a Beyer of 89.

Niclie. In the winter and spring she was a nice enough filly, running well for optional claiming tags of $32,000 and $35,000 at Pimlico and Laurel. She generally earned Beyers in the high 70's or low 80's. Her lifetime best was an 85. Then on June 6 Wolfendale claimed her for $25,000. She immediately responded with a three-race winning streak, moving right up the ladder to $35,000, $50,000, and finally taking the Light Hearted Stakes at Delaware. Her Beyers: 90, 104, 93.

Regal Watch. When this gelding was dropped down to an $8,000 tag back on May 1, Wolfendale claimed him. Regal Watch has now won six races in a row, mostly for $5,000, but also for $8,000 and $9,000. Beyers before the claim: 74, 75, 70, 52. Beyers after the claim: 70, 81, 84, 80, 80, 87. In his latest effort, for $9,000, Regal Watch broke awkwardly, rushed up the entire backstretch, blew past the pacesetter on the turn, and jogged home totally in hand. He was eased up to a 3 1/4-length victory, earning a lifetime-best Beyer Figure.

On that same day, Aug. 24, Wolfendale ran two other horses. Case Load won at first asking after the claim, running down the speed late in the stretch after a four-wide trip. Her Beyers jumped up from the high 40's and low 50's to a 65. Juramento cycled up to a 77 Beyer, going wire-to-wire while never being asked to run at any point. Three for three on the day for Mr. Wolfendale.

The percentages? Against what is arguably the greatest assemblage of wise-guy trainers anywhere in America, Wolfendale has won at a 38 percent clip. He has always been a solid trainer, usually improving horses off the claim and winning at a strong percentage. But his recent run at Delaware goes far beyond any of his earlier accomplishments.

But these seemingly miraculous cases form only part of the story. Here are some other examples of Wolfendale performers - examples that might lead to a much less startling conclusion:

Tailgator. Claimed for $10,000 and dropped four weeks later to $5,000. Wins with a 68 Beyer - best figure in a year, but not by much.

Lucky Explosion. Claimed for $25,000 and dropped six weeks later to $10,000. Finishes second.

Bounding Zeal. Claimed for $12,500. Runs next race five weeks later for $5,000. Finishes second. Beyer Figure drops from mid-40's to 38.

Justamoment. Private purchase. Ran for maiden claiming $25,000. Dropped by Wolfendale next time out to $8,500. Runs second.

Spencers Storm. Claimed for $16,000. Runs once for $16,000 and does nothing. Drops to $5,000 and manages to run third. But wins next time out, with Beyer jumping up from mid-40's to 67.

Lord Burleigh. Claimed for $8,000. Back for $8,000. Finishes second in huge effort, jumping up to 86 Beyer from figures in lower 70's.

Red Zac. Claimed for $16,000. Back in six weeks for only $8,000. Wins.

Heaven's Mist. Claimed for $12,500. Runs back three weeks later for $10,000. Finishes fourth.

He's a Mystery. Claimed for $12,500 after big win (Beyer 85). Runs back in allowance. Finishes second twice with Beyers of 79 and 71, and then wins with 76 Beyer, never reaching pre-claim figure of 85.

Callsports. Claimed for $12,500. Improves to 57 Beyer at $16,000 but finishes only second. Dropped down to $10,000 for win two weeks later, earning Beyer of 63, but never reaching previous high Beyer of 64. Next race: collapses and is distanced.

Topeka. Claimed for $25,000 after Beyer of 66. Moves up to $40,000. Beyer: 45. Back to $25,000, finishes second with a 71. Finally wins next time out with a 70.

Savvy Girl. Claimed for $9,000. Back three weeks later for $12,500. Finishes fifth, beaten 19 lengths.

Covey Roost. Claimed for $12,500. Dropped down to $5,000 a month later. Finishes second. Wins next time out for $5,000, earning Beyer of 65 - back to his earlier Beyer Figures.

So, after examining all the evidence, should we pronounce Howard Wolfendale the latest supertrainer? Or should we merely categorize him as the most prolific claimer-and-dropper in recent history? Or is this just the latest and most systematic exploitation of slots-inflated purses - where claiming and dropping can make good economic sense?