06/11/2003 11:00PM

Triple Crown proves stats often irrelevant

Email

ELMONT, N.Y. - Taking one last look back at the Triple Crown races, perhaps the most important lesson to file away for next spring has to do with the insignificance of many statistics and historical trends. Just a couple of examples:

* No gelding had won the Kentucky Derby since 1929. No New York-bred had ever won the Derby.

Why should those things have mattered? Plenty of geldings had finished in the money (Cavonnier's nose loss a notable example), and geldings beat colts every day at tracks all across the nation. And no matter where a horse was foaled, it can flat-out run if it earned a last-out Beyer of 110.

* Just one horse in more than a half-century had won the Belmont Stakes after running in the Kentucky Derby and not having an interim race.

Recent activity may have been a necessity in a bygone era, but nowadays fresher often means better, and the Belmont exacta comprised two horses who came off the five-week break.

The list goes on and on, consisting of generally meaningless tidbits about secondary factors such as post position, jockeys' records, and what have you.

Statistics and trends make for good conversation, and they may even be meaningful occasionally. But the crux of the matter usually centers on these main factors: the inherent class and speed of the horses; their current form as indicated by recent races and intervening workouts; and how the races set up in terms of pace and position. Empire Maker was in better form and got a better trip in the Belmont than he did in the Derby, and that made the difference.

Results are largely governed by class, speed, form, and position. Everything else is window dressing.

Unbeknownst to most of the 101,864 who braved the elements on a soggy Belmont Stakes Day, racing is alive and well on the Saturday after the Triple Crown. There's an all-stakes pick four at Churchill Downs, headlined by Mineshaft vs. Aldebaran in the Stephen Foster; and an NTRA Summer Pick Three comprising the Foster, the Leonard Richards for 3-year-olds at Delaware Park, and a most interesting running of the Brooklyn Handicap here at Belmont Park.

Mineshaft, who has won three graded stakes routes by open lengths since going on Lasix, rates the edge over Aldebaran, a sprinter-miler who was at the end of his rope to prevail in the Met Mile.

The Leonard Richards is a "spread" race for pick three purposes. No less than 10 of the original field of 12 entered have a top route Beyer in the narrow range of 91-98, and adding to the potential for mayhem are two additional factors: an unsettled weather forecast for the Northeast; and the fact that many horses need a race over the Delaware strip before showing their best form.

If one singles Mineshaft in the Foster, and hits the "all" button in hopes of a wild result in the Leonard Richards, the key to this pick three could hinge on the Brooklyn, which presents quite a handicapping challenge.

The Brooklyn field numbers only six, and oddly enough, a Bobby Frankel-trained horse (El Gran Papa) figures as the longest shot on the board. A case can reasonably made for or against the other five:

The returning Evening Attire is best at 10 furlongs, and figures to need his first start since last fall. But he is a bonafide mud lark who peaked to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup on a wet Belmont track, and the forecast seemingly calls for scattered thunderstorms from now through the end of the summer.

There are questions surrounding the others, too.

How will Harlan's Holiday, who looked so good over his preferred Gulfstream surface during the winter, bounce back from his second-place finish in Dubai?

Did Volponi get enough conditioning out of his seasonal bow in a sprint five weeks ago? And how might the graded stakes winner on turf and dirt handle a wet track - something he has never raced on in 24 starts?

Can Saarland, coming off four straight one-mile races dating back to last fall, handle the extra furlong and avoid a bounce after running a new top figure in the Met Mile?

And what about Iron Deputy - the injury-plagued colt who comes off a huge win against third-level allowance company? Will he be the one to try and take control of what is essentially a paceless matchup? Is he classy enough to make that tactical edge matter?

McLaughlin winning with everything

Too bad Kiaran McLaughlin doesn't have a horse in any of these stakes races, because you could just single it and move on to the next leg. The former Team Lukas assistant is off to a 9-for-17 start at Belmont after Northern Rock's wire-to-wire romp over Puzzlement in Thursday's fifth race, and he shows no signs of slowing down. A $2 flat bet of $34 on all of his runners would have returned $104.40, and all nine winners (on dirt and turf) scored by open lengths - several of them by a pole.

Only two - Abreeze and Lunar Sovereign - were favored, and that was because they had won here last year, so bettors were familiar with their abilities. With the exception of Canadian Frontier, who had finished third in his last start, all of McLaughlin's winners had finished off the board in their most recent races in Dubai.