07/19/2006 11:00PM

Tougher and tougher to beat the public


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Anticipation is building to a crescendo throughout the Capital District as the 138th season of racing at fabled Saratoga Race Course approaches. We know this because in Thursday's edition of the Times-Union there was an article about The Green Monkey, the $16 million unraced 2-year-old in Todd Pletcher's barn. He's not ready yet, but Pletcher hopes he will run sometime at the meet, the Times-Union wants us to know.

What if The Green Monkey comes onto the track looking like a million bucks, as they say? Is that good or bad?

The meet begins unofficially with free admission for Sunday's 26th annual Open House, a carnival-style family day that features pony rides, a petting zoo, a magic show, and guys walking around on stilts. There will also be a couple of non-wagering flat races for steeplechase horses, and they will appear as workout lines when these 'chasers race back in the meet's six official jump-ups, scheduled each Thursday.

Of course, the serious business begins next Wednesday, when the meet gets under way with an agreeably reconfigured stakes program worth just over $10.3 million, and an endless variety of ways for handicappers to shoot themselves in the foot.

During the next six weeks, "Will you give me some winners?" will be a daily request from friends, neighbors, nodding acquaintances, and mostly from total strangers who recognize me despite a receding hairline that makes me look older or more distinguished than the picture running on this page, depending on who you ask.

My answer by now is pretty much always the same: Stick around for 100 races, and I will come up with about 30 winners (maybe 35 if I'm going well). This is not some number pulled out of thin air: As a borderline obsessive-compulsive, I have records that indicate a record of 105-340 (30.9 percent) last year; 98-304 (32.2 percent) in 2004; and 98-312 (31.4 percent) in 2003.

The catch is that no one knows which races in any of those 100-race samples will provide those 30 winners, least of all yours truly. Every so often we may think we know how a day or a meet at Saratoga is going to turn out, but there is usually some new wrinkle thrown in.

As a way of psyching up and conjuring the ghosts of summers past, I have been looking through my result charts, and in those stacks of yellowed pages are reminders that the summer of 2002 was the second-hottest Spa meet since official record-keeping of the weather began here in 1872. The following year, unrelenting rain washed more than 25 percent of 117 scheduled turf races to the main track (one of the reasons the New York Racing Association now increases purses in off-the-turf races by 20 percent as long as at least eight betting interests remain).

What will Saratoga 2006 be like? Here is something I know, or think I know: Favorites will win at least 35 percent of the races, and perhaps more. Everyone likes to be extra smart at the Spa, but it's getting tougher to put one over on what remains of John Q. Punter. That's because there just aren't as many bad horseplayers around as there used to be, and the savvier bettors who remain have access to all kinds of data and information that wasn't readily available a decade ago. At Saratoga's 2003 meet, favorites went 54-113 (nearly 48 percent) the first two weeks, and finished up winning at 41 percent; last year, the chalk went 130-343 (nearly 38 percent); through the first 1,000 races on the New York circuit this year, the post-time choice won 387 races, or 38.7 percent.

At Saratoga last year, favorites were particularly strong in 2-year-old maiden sprints on dirt, winning 20 of 47 races, or 42.5 percent of the time.

In the 30 graded stakes last year, favorites won 11 and second choices eight, meaning one of the top two choices prevailed more than 63 percent of the time.

If you're still intent on being a wiseguy, it is advisable to pay particular attention to the 2-year-old turf races, because they are consistently perplexing, and the number of opportunities is growing annually. Consider that:

* Since 2000, juvenile turf races have produced boxcar winners such as Pitbull ($120), Amaretta ($115.50), Hangingbyamoment ($82.50), and Cozie Advantage ($60.50).

* Of the seven juvenile turf races in 2003, the average winner paid $28.50, and the lowest price was $11.80.

* Last year, J'ray, an eventual stakes winner, was the lone favorite to win from 15 juvenile turf races. There were four winners - Shelterfromastorm ($38), Kid Carousel ($36.20), Perilous Pursuit ($35.40), and May Night ($31.80) - at 14-1 or better.