04/13/2005 11:00PM

Trust performance over perception


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Statistics are analyzed in just about every sport. So it is interesting that sports fans are rarely faithful statisticians.

In contrast to the beliefs held by many sports fans, most statisticians couldn't care less about an athlete being hot or cold. Stats from only one game represent too small a sample, making them relatively insignificant in their eyes. With a basketball game on the line, they would rather have a player who was "cold" in that game shoot an important last-minute jumper, provided he had been the best shooter over the season.

Sports fans hear such things from statisticians and shake their heads in disbelief. So, too, do many horseplayers, who also pass judgment quickly, sometimes prematurely. We've all heard other bettors remark after the opening daily double that "speed is really holding" - or something to that extent. Based on what? Two races?

If I flipped a coin twice and it came up heads both times, does that mean it is biased? Absolutely not.

Yet handicappers rush to such judgments often, and they may rush to judgment again in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

The vibe that I get from my fellow handicappers is that most like High Limit a lot less than they did a few weeks ago. Through no fault of his own, his stock has dropped following subsequent losses by some of the horses he defeated in the March 12 Louisiana Derby.

In a few notable examples, runner-up Vicarage came back to finish sixth, beaten 17 lengths in the Florida Derby; fourth-place Wallstreet Scandal was eased in the same race; and seventh-place Kansas City Boy ran eighth, beaten over 36 lengths in the Illinois Derby.

Of the horses who have run back out of the Louisiana Derby, only Sort It Out, who ran eighth, has come back to run competitively. Even he lost at Sunland Park, running third, beaten 1 1/4 lengths in the WinStar Derby.

Handicappers who watched those races, particularly those who wagered unsuccessfully on these runners, are likely to conclude that the Louisiana Derby was an inferior race, certainly weaker than the 105 Beyer High Limit earned in the race might suggest.

I believe it is too early to make a conclusion based on a sample of only four races, especially considering two of the horses were essentially eased in their subsequent races. I would rather trust the data from the Louisiana Derby itself - the four-length margin of victory from High Limit and his sparkling time.

Additionally, High Limit is unbeaten in three starts; he is trained by one of the greats in the game, Bobby Frankel; and should be fitter and stronger in his second race off a layoff.

He is what I call a negative key race play, a horse who will likely be a tick or two higher on the board than he would have been if some of his Louisiana Derby rivals had come back to run more competitively.

High Limit looks similar to Peace Rules, winner of the 2003 Blue Grass for Frankel. Like High Limit, Peace Rules kicked off his 3-year-old year in the Louisiana Derby, also running a 105 Beyer.

Frankel should have High Limit poised for a top performance. Since 2000, Frankel has won more stakes at Keeneland than any other trainer, going 11 for 34 (32 percent) and generating a return on investment of $2.24.

A $36 Premier Pick 4 play

The Blue Grass is one of four stakes this Saturday linked in a pick four. Called the Premier Pick Four, the $1 wager begins with the Instant Racing Breeders' Cup from Oaklawn, follows with the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup and Blue Grass from Keeneland, and ends with the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn.

The Instant Racing Breeders' Cup, the weakest race of the all-stakes quartet, runs through California invader She Sings, who drops in class off a third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. Tizzy Girl and Kota will also be on my tickets.

In the Commonwealth, Sir Shackleton and Lion Tamer look best suited to seven furlongs. I also cannot ignore the class and speed of Cajun Beat, who despite having an off year in 2004, still managed a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

With Consolidator, Sun King, and Bandini providing a test for High Limit in the Blue Grass, it is far from a one-horse race. But in light of the short field, I plan to take a stand and single High Limit.

The Arkansas Derby closes out the wager. Flower Alley offers value at 9-2 odds on the morning line and is my choice to follow up his Lane's End victory with another graded stakes triumph. I'll go four deep in this competitive field, also using Rush Bay, Afleet Alex, and longshot Real Dandy.

A $1 pick-four play using this combination costs $36.