06/13/2002 11:00PM

These guys had Sarava on top

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Las Vegas is a city that takes its horse and sports betting very seriously. Every day thousands of bettors are seeking winners, some of them looking for help from 900 numbers, other tout services, or public handicappers.

What if I told you that the 70-1 winner of the Belmont Stakes, Sarava, was selected on top by two public handicappers? Sarava was the first choice of Brad Thomas on the Monmouth Park website and of Andy Schnell at his website, Breeding Winners. I can vouch for both selections because on Belmont morning I looked up the two web sites.

Thomas is the morning-line maker and a simulcast analyst at Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands. He had been keeping an eye on Sarava for months before the Belmont.

"I first saw Sarava run Nov. 21 at Churchill Downs in one of two maiden route races that day," said Thomas. "I liked his ability to be close to live fractions and keep galloping, then overpower the field. I made a mental note on him, liking his potential."

Sarava was sidelined by a severe quarter crack, but returned in April to finish second in allowance races at Keeneland and Churchill, both times over sloppy tracks.

"I thought he hated the slop on both occasions," said Thomas. "He fought his way through it and finished strongly both times."

Then came the Sir Barton at Pimlico on Preakness Day, which Sarava won by four lengths.

"When the Sir Barton came, for the first time this year he was able to race over a harrowed track with no standing water on it," Thomas said. "He showed his tactical speed as a 2-year-old and stayed in range early. That's the secret because he doesn't have an explosive kick.

"I didn't like a lot of the horses running in the Belmont. I was confident Sarava would outrun his odds. I was confident he would be on the board. His real chances to me were 15-1 and I thought he'd go off at 50-1."

Thomas believes bettors should always look for value.

"Price is everything," he said. "Minute percentage edges add up in the long run. It's a continuum that adds up over time."

Schnell makes daily selections at his site. In his full-time job he's a senior air pollution control engineer for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. But racing is his passion.

"Breeding Winners is a statistical study of winning performances by foals of a sire and a broodmare sire," said Schnell. "I compile the data myself."

He enters many variables into his computer and produces daily race reports for major tracks.

"Only two Belmont entrants, Perfect Drift and Sarava, had both a sire and a broodmare sire that had previously produced a non-maiden dirt winner at a distance beyond 10 furlongs," Schnell said.

His final pick was Sarava because the colt's sire, Wild Again, and damsire, Deputy Minister, had a better percentage of winners in high-class races than Perfect Drift's sire and damsire, Schnell said. Also, the fact that War Emblem had beaten Perfect Drift in the Kentucky Derby was a negative, he thought.

"Understanding the conditions that produced previous winners by the same sire will help the handicapper determine the true contenders in a given race," Schnell said.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.