08/24/2003 11:00PM

There were clues to Frankel failures

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N. Y. - Knowing how to handicap is essential for a horseplayer, as is some sense of money management. But, those two things won't get you to home plate unless you can also be flexible and change strategy on the fly. Saturday at Saratoga offered a perfect lesson.

Trainer Bobby Frankel had to scratch an ill Empire Maker from Saturday's Travers, the biggest race of the Saratoga meet and a race he would have been solidly favored to win. But, Frankel had seven other starters on the Travers card. On paper, it looked like he would come away with a handful of winners at worst, and at best, he stood a chance to win with all seven of them, since four of Frankel's horses went off as the favorite and not one of them went off at odds of higher than 6-1.

Instead, Frankel was shut out Saturday. The failure of these well-bet Frankel horses would not have come as a surprise to a horseplayer attuned to what was happening and courageous enough to adjust accordingly.

There was tangible evidence beforehand to expect Frankel's horses not to run well. Empire Maker's sickness was big news. I'm no veterinarian, but I do have kids, and I know that when one gets sick, the whole family gets sick. When you combine Empire Maker's illness with the fact that Frankel's only starter at Saratoga on Wednesday finished seventh, that he had no starters at Saratoga Thursday, and that his only starter Friday, Wild Spirit, ran decidedly below form losing the Personal Ensign at 1-5, it should have raised suspicion that perhaps the illness that knocked Empire Maker out of the Travers was not confined to one stall.

The great thing about Frankel having so many horses in Saturday is that it gave the plugged-in horseplayer an early opportunity to assess the status of his horses. When his first starter, Summer Scene, finished 10th of 11 at 8-5 in the fourth race, that was a sign of trouble. Then, when Epicentre finished a dull third as the chalk in the next race, sharp players began to throw out the rest of Frankel's horses in the later races. When they did, they avoided Sea of Showers's last-place finish in the Ballston Spa at 6-5, and War Zone's ninth in the Fourstardave as the second choice. Although, in fairness, it should be pointed out that the Frankel-trained Ghostzapper and Peace Rules ran respectably, finishing third in the King's Bishop and second in the Travers, respectively.

This situation was very much like a track bias scenario in that horses who run either far below or well above the way they figured to may have had their performances impacted by other influences. And, like a track bias situation, the opportunity for the horseplayer to capitalize not only exists in the present, but in the future, also. Once the Frankel barn gets back on track again, many of the horses who were so disappointing at Saratoga on Saturday will come back and run very well. Plus, when they do, they will at inflated odds thanks to a subpar running line in their last starts.

By the way, it should be noted that this is not an exercise in red boarding. Anyone who attended Saturday morning's Daily Racing Form seminar at Siro's next to Saratoga was amply warned.

Speaking of track biases, there seemed to be one that favored horses on or close to the pace at Saratoga on Saturday. A flexible handicapper would have had his antennae raised right off the bat in Saturday's first race when Limone Forte, who had shown an affinity for the reverse gear in his two starts against winners, held on to win, and then when Distressed Debt drew away at nearly 32-1 to win the second race after contesting a fast (for the class of race) early pace. Any doubt about the way the track was playing (at least in sprints, as the Travers was the only two turn dirt race on the 12-race card, which makes the Travers speed figure pretty much a guess) was totally removed after the Victory Ride Stakes, when Country Romance and She's Zealous went around the track one-two and resisted better stalkers and closers.

By this point, the entire Saratoga grandstand knew how the track was playing. But, apparently, that old news did not filter down to the jockeys' room, and in the very next dirt race, the King's Bishop Stakes, it was distressing to see what happened to Zavata. I didn't like Zavata going in, as he was only 6-5 off his victory in the Amsterdam earlier in the meet. But on paper, he looked like the controlling speed. Nevertheless, Jerry Bailey had him 4 1/2 lengths off the lead a quarter-mile into the race, and for a horse who prefers to be up with the lead anyway, his day was done right there.

Why is it that when it comes to such things, a lot of the human participants in the game are often the last ones to know?