11/28/2003 12:00AM

Talking myself into a pair of longshots

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PHOENIX - I recently had a conversation with my handicapping alter-ego regarding Sunday's Grade 1 Hollywood Derby and Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood. Both races represent terrific four-digit opportunities, with full fields and competition that's stiff from top to bottom. And I really won't know until after the races are official whether my conversation went well or not.

It started innocently enough.

"Is there someone I can hang my hat on in the derby?"

"What are you, nuts? Listen, with competition this stiff, you're not forced into a situation where you have to key somebody. What's wrong with spreading?"

"Well, I prefer to go in with a strong opinion. Too much spreading to me indicates lack of conviction."

"Get a grip. Spreading sometimes is simply the way to go when you have a level playing field and the odds are jumbled, like you're going to see in the derby."

"Okay so let's start with some of the Californians. Fairly Ransom won the Del Mar Derby, and Sweet Return wasn't far away."

"Yeah, but what if they're Del Mar horses? The Hollywood turf course is about as different from the Del Mar course as your golf game is from Ernie Els's. Besides, since those guys come off big races, they're going to get bet."

"All right, Kicken Kris won the Secretariat . . . "

"Secretariat Shmecretariat. Again, that's a totally different kind of course. And, KK came back to romp in New York. You're not going to get any great shakes of a price on him. Dig deeper."

"Okay, okay. Alberto Giacometti brings some bigshot Euro form with him, but I can see you rolling your eyes already. He's going to get bet, too. You know what, though? There's a horse in here who, back in the spring and early summer, looked like he was going to be the bomb among the 3-year-old turf set. Things didn't go so well at Del Mar, but he came right back against elders and ran lights out to be third in the Grade 3 Burke going 12 furlongs. Maybe he didn't care for the Del Mar turf course. The Burke shows he's back on his game, and look - he just worked a monster 1:10 and change the other day. You know who I'm talking about, right?"

"Sure, and I know where you're going with this. Senor Swinger did look the goods, and remember trainer Bob Baffert was originally going to run him in the BC Mile but opted to wait and face 3-year-olds only. That's a great move, and that big work says he's ready to go. Okay, so you're not a basket case. Next race."

"Hold on, hold on. Let's put together an $81 superfecta ticket (3x4x5x6). We'll go Senor Swinger/Silver Tree/Stanley Park, over those three and Fairly Ransom, over those four and Kicken Kris, over those five and Alberto Giacometti."

"Cool. That's a signer if you hit."

I continued my conversation, trying to unravel the Matriarch.

"It's a different scenario this year - I mean, it's only a mile now, not 1 1/8 miles like last year. Defending champ Dress to Thrill is back but hasn't really looked the same since winning this race last year. So, I think I'm going to look elsewhere."

"You can always go for the big Frankels - Heat Haze comes off a fine fourth in the BC Filly & Mare Turf, and Etoile Montante ships in for Europe for him."

"But you know they're going to be bet. I'm also a little leery that Jerry Bailey doesn't get back aboard Heat Haze. Is he trying to tell us something? Nah, I'm looking bomb again. What about Musical Chimes? She got brutalized in the BC."

"Yeah, she got hammered when they turned for home, but she was already beaten and backing out of it, anyway. Do you think she can come back off such a rough, tough race? Besides, she's also going from two 10-furlong races back to a mile."

"True. That's no small hurdle. Let's do some more basic handicapping: Belleski is coming out of sprints and is pretty quick, and you know Chopinina is going to go. It's a big field, so a deep closer may well have problems getting through. You probably want someone that's going to be within reach."

"Magic Mission ran third last year. Dedication is nice. Garden in the Rain is tough."

"Yeah, yeah, but none of them really get my pulse racing. What about the 3-year-old Maiden Tower?"

"Are you nuts, a 3-year-old against these tough elders?"

"Wait a minute. We're not talking about just any 3-year-old filly. This girl ran her guts out in the Queen Elizabeth II at Keeneland, and in my estimation she should have been moved up to first because I thought winner Film Critic smacked her hard enough a couple of times to make all the difference. Besides, Maiden Tower has the speed to be well positioned, is probably better at this mile trip than she is at the 1 1/8-mile trip she got at Keeneland, and she's had plenty of time to recover from that grueling effort. I also like that David Flores keeps the call, and he rode her brilliantly at Keeneland."

"Well, you've just about sold me, but . . . "

"And she's got to be all of 10-1 or so, what with the depth of competition here."

"That did it. So what's your play, wiseguy?"

"Well, there's no getting around some scary opposition, so let's set up the same type of bet as we did in the derby, an $81 superfecta run. We'll go Maiden Tower/Musical Chimes/Heat Haze over those three plus Etoile Montante, those four plus Dress to Thrill, over those five and Acago. Sound good?"

"Hope to see you in the IRS line."