05/05/2004 11:00PM

Swissle Stick fits second-out Lukas angle


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One of the challenges of handicapping races for 2-year-olds is the absence of past performance lines. With limited or no past races to analyze, horseplayers must weigh pedigree, works, connections, and statistics.

Sometimes statistics that encompass too large of a sample can steer handicappers down the wrong path. Consider Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and his statistics with first-time starters. Since 2002, he has won at an 11 percent rate with debuting runners, generating a $2 return on investment of $0.89.

Those statistics are misleading because they do not reflect the age of the horse, or the time of the year. Lukas wins at a much higher percentage with 2-year-olds in the spring than during the summer, fall, and winter. His runners are often precocious, and he is skilled at getting a young horse to win at short distances, such as five furlongs.

To get a fairer view of how Lukas does with 2-year-olds in the spring, I printed the past performances from all Lukas-trained juveniles that ran at Keeneland or Churchill Downs during the past three years. The numbers I found were much more favorable than what is reflected in his overall statistics with debuting runners.

Since 2002, seven of his 30 first-out juveniles won at Keeneland or Churchill Downs. Another five finished second, and six more ran third. Those numbers reflect over 23 percent winners, and 60 percent in the money.

On the whole, they were not overbet at the mutuel windows. The seven winners started at average odds of over $2.90-1. A couple paid $11 or more, including 2003 Debutante winner Be Gentle, who paid $15.20 in winning her debut at Churchill Downs.

The odds on these runners were not so high that a $2 wager on each would have yielded a profit ($1.83), but considering the flashy pedigrees and expensive price tags of many of the Lukas-trained runners, merely coming close to profitability is surprising.

It should also be pointed out that Lukas-trained second-out maiden 2-year-olds were even more dangerous. Five of his 10 second-out runners in the spring at Churchill and Keeneland have won since 2002. These returned an average of nearly $1.70-1.

The second-out Lukas angle gets a test in the third race at Churchill on Saturday. Swissle Stick, who finished fourth in his debut last month at Keeneland, makes his second start in a five-furlong dash.

Despite being a Lukas second-time starter, he is no standout. Temporary Zone finished second in his only start, behind Lunarpal, subsequent winner of the Three Chimneys Juvenile, and Favorite Fun comes off a third-place finish at Keeneland for trainer Jinks Fires, who also does well with second-time starters.

Wildcat Shoes value play in Matt Winn

Perhaps the most intriguing race of the Saturday card at Churchill is the $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes, which has a small but talented field. With Cuvee returning from ankle surgery and a long layoff, Wildcat Shoes appears poised for a win at a square price.

A six-furlong specialist, he might be a bit overlooked because Cuvee and Lecomte winner Fire Slam have graded experience, which he does not. But everything about Wildcat Shoes suggests he is a horse of quality. He ran very fast in winning the Sugar Bowl Handicap at Fair Grounds in December, and later ran well in stakes at Oaklawn and Hawthorne.

His only losses since last October have come in races won by Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones and Derby also-ran Pro Prado.

Drawn outside Cuvee in post 2, Wildcat Shoes may have a tactical advantage over that one. And going six furlongs, he may prove capable of withstanding the late run of Fire Slam, who is being prepped for the seven-furlong Riva Ridge on the Belmont Stakes undercard next month.

* Wildcat Shoes seems a good late daily double play with Prof. McGonagall, who appears primed for a win in the last race, a one-mile, entry-level allowance on turf. She finished third in her first start of the year despite traffic difficulties and should be stronger in her second start following a layoff. Her trainer, Allison Register, has won with six of her last 23 turf starters.