10/19/2006 11:00PM

Tip horse: Opening Dance

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - I've seen it happen hundreds of times. A front-runner breaks badly and finds himself far behind the leaders by the time he recovers. The horse uses his early speed to narrow part of the gap between himself and the leaders, then runs out of gas, surrenders, and loses the race by a large margin.

The stage was set for that same scenario to unfold in the second race at Keeneland on Wednesday.

Opening Dance is usually a front-runner. She was either first or second or within a neck of the lead at the first call in each of her previous 10 races. And with the exception of her last race, which was a front-running win at Turfway Park vs. $5,000 claimers who had not won three races, she had lost ground from midstretch to the finish in 11 straight races.

She broke in the air at the start on Wednesday and was last early. If that wasn't bad enough, she then threw her head in the air repeatedly and fell farther behind while jockey Julien Leparoux attempted to stay aboard and regain control of her. She appeared to have no chance of being competitive in the race following this horrendous beginning.

I wasn't surprised to see Opening Dance make a little run at the leaders. But I was shocked when she continued her rally through the turn, especially when she was stuck nine wide. I was amazed when she continued strongly through the stretch and was up in time to finish second, beaten by just four lengths. Based on the trouble she experienced, she appeared to be much the best in that race.

How much the best? She was 9 3/4 lengths behind the leader after a quarter-mile. For the sake of argument, let's say that she is fast enough to have been at least on even terms with the leader at that point with a clean start. So give her 9 3/4 lengths of credit. Then, take a look at the data provided by the Trakus company on the Keeneland web site. It shows that Opening Dance ran 4,023 feet during the race. For the sake of estimation, let's say that as the likely early leader she deserved to save about as much ground as the filly in the race who ended up being the early leader. That was Etcetera, who ran 3,982 feet. That is a difference of 41 feet. Using the estimation of eight feet equals a length, suggested to me by a Trakus executive, Opening Dance ran an extra five lengths because of the wide trip, for a total of 14 3/4 lengths worth of trouble. That would have made Opening Dance a 10 3/4-length winner with a Beyer of about 89, rather than the 52 she actually earned.

The temptation for any handicapper who saw this remarkable performance is to want to bet on Opening Dance aggressively in her next start if she runs in anything vaguely resembling a similar spot, and even with a reasonable class jump.

But before you mortgage the house to bet on her next time, there is another factor to consider. A horse that runs well under adverse conditions is probably a good bet next time. But a horse that runs an unbelievable race might have run so hard that her heroic performance leaves her exhausted, so much so that she can reasonably be expected to regress if she returns to the races too quickly. I've seen that happen often enough to motivate me to be cautious.

This was the third start for Opening Dance in 38 days, which averages out to roughly one race every 13 days during that span. The ideal scenario from my point of view as a handicapper would be if she returns in about four to six weeks. That makes sense not only from the standpoint of giving her some extra recovery time, but also because the three best races showing in her past performances were run on Polytrack at Turfway and Keeneland. Turfway opens Nov. 26.

On Friday morning I asked trainer Robert Pincins how Opening Dance came out of her race, and whether he was inclined to wait for a race at Turfway as he considered her next start.

"She ate up well after the race," Pincins said. "I'll have to wait until I get her back on the track in the morning before I decide how quickly to run her back. But I do want to try her on dirt again to see if she really is best on Polytrack, or if some of the changes we have made with her are the reasons for her improved performances."

If Opening Dance breaks cleanly, and runs her race next time, she'll be very hard to beat. Put her on your Stable Mail list.