01/28/2005 1:00AM

Tactical speed crucial on Fair Grounds dirt


LEXINGTON, KY. - Handicappers who pay attention to track bias frequently find more similarities in the sprint and route bias trends on the main track than they do in sprint and route trends on the turf. A check of the turf races run at Fair Grounds from Jan. 21-27 provides a good example of how divergent the winning pace profiles can be at different distances on the grass.

During this period early speed was dominant in 5 1/2-furlong races. Three of the four grass races run at that distance were won by the horse who led at the first call. The exception was Thunder Bullet, who was second at the first call and wore down early leader Tricky Storm in the fifth race on Jan. 23. Fortunately for those who liked Tricky Storm, the two horses were entrymates, so they collected anyway.

The turf route race results were very different. In the six grass races run at a mile or longer, none of the first-call leaders won. In fact, five of those six winners were closers who scored from the rear half of the field at the first call. At 7 1/2 furlongs, the results were mixed, and seemed to be influenced mostly by pace. The two front-runners who won were assisted by slow 50.89- and 50.94-second half-mile fractions, while Kaylan's Rose, the closer who won from sixth in a field of eight on Jan. 27, found a more realistic 48.87 fraction to chase.

The bias trend on the dirt was different than what is usually seen on most main tracks. Early speed was only a small advantage with 4 1/2 wins from 26 sprint races (a dead heat involving a first-call leader was counted as a half-win), for a 17 percent win rate. I call it an advantage since that win rate would be equal to random chance if the fields had all contained six horses (1 divided by 6 equals 17 percent). Since most of those sprints contained more runners than that, there was still an edge for the early leader. It turned out that tracking the leader has been the best strategy recently. Horses who were located in second at the first call won six races, for a 23 percent rate. Runners who were in third place did best: 8 wins (31 percent).

The route results were similar, although the sample of nine races is small. There was one winning first-call leader, for an 11 percent rate. Three winners came from second place (33 percent), and two more were third during the early going (22 percent).

Regardless of the distance of those main-track races, horses with tactical speed had a definitive edge. Those among the first three at the first call won 71 percent of the sprints and 66 percent of the routes, leaving the multiple mid-pack runners and closers to share just 29 percent and 34 percent of the wins.

Maker making it work

A first-time starter in the sixth race at Fair Grounds on Jan. 23 caught my attention. Over the Border, trained by Rebecca Maker, debuted in a maiden special for 3-year-old fillies. I interviewed Becky Maker for a story in late September. Her statistics then were strong in a wide range of areas, including the drop from maiden special to maiden claiming, and most of the layoff categories. In fact, they were so good that the ordinary ones stood out as being exceptions. One notable area that she showed just 9 percent wins in, and a $1.33 reurn on investment, was with first-time starters. I asked her if that was a reflection of the patient way she brings a horse up to a race. Maker said that in past years, the 2-year-olds she received from many of her clients needed time and were unlikely to win at first asking. She was confident that her win percentage in that category would improve in 2005 because of a change in the type of youngsters she had acquired.

"Some of the 2-year-olds I've bought more recently are the more precocious types who can win early," she said. "My first time out percentage will probably increase through the next year."

Those who recalled her prediction were happy to see Over the Border score by 2 1/4 lengths at $36. Her ROI with debuting runners is now a very healthy $3.43, with three winners (16 percent) from a sample of 19. Keep an eye on her other first-time starters during the coming months.

A day later, Maker won another maiden special race, this time with a second-time starter, Rumor Has It, who paid $6.60 as the favorite. Maker had won with 23 percent of her starters in that category when I spoke with her last year, with a $2.85 ROI, so it is no surprise to see her numbers rising in that area also.