07/30/2008 11:00PM

Top three favorites holding their own at Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Favorites are winning at a paltry 19 percent this summer at Del Mar, and if you believe the statistics, you probably are afraid to back any horse at a short price.

But statistics are misleading, and the truth is that the low win rate for the chalk does not accurately reflect what transpired the first 13 days of the 43-day summer meet. There has been a lot less chaos than it seems.

When the favorites' win percentage drops this low, a corresponding decline for the second and third choices also is expected. This summer, it has not happened. In fact, a closer look at the numbers suggests that the Del Mar results have been orderly the first two weeks of the meet.

Del Mar chalk the past decade has won at slightly higher than the 33 percent historical norm. Second favorites win about 22 percent of the time; third favorites 14 percent. Add it all up, and 70 percent of the races are won by one of the first three betting choices.

That trend has held true this summer, despite favorites taking it on the chin. From the first 111 races, favorites won 21 races, the second favorite 31 races, and the third favorite 23. Add it all up, and 75 of the 111 races (67 percent) have been won by one of the first three choices.

No one said this game is easy. But this summer at Del Mar has been a lot less baffling than the frequently cited low win percent of the chalk.

* Statistical gibberish also applies to trainers such as Del Mar's fifth-ranked all-time trainer. Bob Baffert began the meet going 0 for 18, a streak that includes seven losing favorites. The statistics, however do not tell the entire story.

In fact, most Baffert trainees have either maintained form, or improved. Eight of his 14 runners reproduced their last start (within 4 points on the Beyer Speed figure scale). five improved 7 or more points. Three were first-time starters, and one regressed (Ten Churros in her first start vs. winners). Baffert is not exactly on a hot streak, but it is inaccurate to suggest that his runners are struggling.

* Which sprinter ran best? The winner who rallied seven wide, never got stopped, and won by a length? Or was it the runner-up who saved ground behind a hot pace but got bogged in heavy traffic before finally splitting horses and finishing full of run? Answer correctly, and you have the winner of the six-furlong Grade 1 Ancient Title Handicap on Sept. 27. You'd have to believe that In Summation probably ran better in the Bing Crosby than the winner Street Boss. But it's a close call.

* The speed-favoring profile for 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack at Del Mar has dissipated somewhat. But that does not mean deep closer Zenyatta is worth backing at a short price in the Grade 2 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap. And though you have to give Zenyatta credit for her extended rally winning the Grade 1 Vanity last out, her rally-from-last style is not the winning ticket this summer at the Hirsch distance.

* With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel . . . are you going to Scarbourough Fair? If the backstretch rumbles are even half-accurate, the 2-year-old Vindication filly Scarbourough Fair will be mighty tough Sunday when she debuts for trainer John Shirreffs in race 6. She is the first foal out of stakes winner Class Above, a flashy debut winner at Del Mar in 2003. The whispers are that Scarbourough Fair is the real deal.

* The horrendous trip Wednesday by race-8 first-time starter Cach D Fish was the worst of the meet. The 2-year-old colt, the first starter sired by Spinelessjellyfish, should win next time. He should have won Wednesday. He broke dead last, unleashed a kamikaze move up the rail to press the pace, got trapped behind horses on the turn, took up in midstretch while still trying to rally, and finally lost his steam to miss by less than four lengths. Trained by Gary Stute, Cach D Fish was best by a mile.

* The reporting of first-time geldings has improved in California, and 2-year-old Charlie's Moment sprang a big upset July 26 when he paid $44.20 as a "first-time G." But who would have though that a horse named Richly Endowed would ever be gelded? He was scheduled to make his comeback in race 5 on Thursday. Ouch.

* Has there been an uglier race for 3-year-olds this year than the Grade 2 Jim Dandy last weekend at Saratoga? Didn't think so.

* The romping win by Zappa in the 1 1/2-mile Cougar II on Wednesday illustrated the biggest difference between the 2007 and 2008 race meets. Last year, sharp morning workouts did not always foretell sharp afternoon performances. But this year, horses are running to their works. Zappa turned in two solid drills over Polytrack, and replicated the workouts winning Cougar by more than six lengths.

* After watching the Cougar II, and the 1 5/8-mile Gallant Man at Hollywood Park, and the 1 1/2-mile Tokyo City at Santa Anita, well . . . . the excitement sure is building for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Marathon.