01/22/2003 1:00AM

Try to spot trainer patterns early

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LAS VEGAS - "Ya gotta believe!" In Beyer Speed Figures, that is. And in your trainer angles, also. When they both come together, then you really have to believe.

That's what I was telling myself after I decided not to play a maiden named Coalition in the 10th race last Thursday at Gulfstream Park. After all, who needs odds of 8-1 on a trainer angle I had already sensed might be productive? It just wasn't enough to drive me to the windows. And, of course, he who hesitates has no chance of winning.

The trainer in question is Leo O'Brien, a New York racing veteran whose career seems to have been winding down after decades of success, mostly with New York-breds and grass horses. He is not a trainer you expect to be a major factor in south Florida, but you never know from year to year. There are always new players, and you have to pay close attention if you are going to take advantage of certain surprises before they become common knowledge.

This story began on Jan. 10 with a maiden filly named Dinah's Pearls. At that point the meet was only one week old, and O'Brien had started only one horse, Some Irish Legend, who ran very poorly in an off-the-turf race on opening day. So there was no way you could have sensed any trend when Dinah's Pearls was entered. She probably was an overlay at 30-1 since she had earned a decent Beyer figure in her first lifetime start last October on the turf, despite having endured a very wide trip under a 10-pound apprentice rider.

But the Jan. 10 race had an overwhelming favorite - French import Barboura, whose Timeform ratings were totally dominant. She had earned ratings of 91 and 90 in France during the summer of her 2-year-old season. Using the rule-of-thumb formula (Timeform minus 12 or 13 equals Beyer), and further adjusting for the normal maturing process from age 2 to 3, Barboura could be projected to run Beyers well into the upper 80's, which simply looked like too much for the rest of this field.

Barboura broke a bit slowly, moved four or five wide around the second turn, and won with something left very impressively. But the margin of victory was only a half-length, with Dinah's Pearls running a strong second. A performance like that, at long odds against a potential killer grass filly - that's the kind of effort you keep in the memory bank for when that trainer enters his next runner. And that came on the very next day. Jeeves, however, was a completely different situation. He's an older, high-priced claimer, and he was entered in a mad scramble of a race im which even his best effort would make him only one of many possible contenders. He made a wide move and then hung badly.

Five days passed before O'Brien entered Coalition on Jan. 16. I remembered how Dinah's Pearls had been ready to run a big race following a layoff, but she was the only horse in his barn that had done anything at all at the meet, so I had my doubts. The Beyer Figures should have tipped the scales. Coalition had earned a very solid 69 Beyer at 2 last October while being well beaten - and with the same 10-pound apprentice who had ridden Dinah's Pearls last year. And O'Brien was using the same jockey - Jose Velez Jr. - as he had on Dinah's Pearls five days earlier.

Coalition had a little trouble early in the race, fell far back, and then closed very strongly to win by one length, paying $19.20. The angle was now confirmed. And the next day another big opportunity presented itself. This time I would not be conflicted into indecision.

In the sixth race on Jan. 17, O'Brien entered the filly Positively Wild, who was making her first turf start after four poor performances on the dirt in 2002. He dropped her down slightly into a high-priced maiden claiming race - precisely the same level as Coalition's race the day before. Positively Wild opened at odds of 5-2 and then drifted up to 5-1. This time the rider was O'Brien's son-in-law, John Velazquez.

Unfortunately, Velazquez gave the filly an uncharacteristically passive ride, allowing himself to be trapped behind horses on the turn, and only was only able to break out of the bottleneck in upper stretch - too late to catch the front-runner who had set an uncontested and leisurely pace. Positively Wild closed with a big rush, but fell short by a length.

Last Monday, I followed up the O'Brien angle with Tiger Babe, an older mare who was probably a bit of a stretch in her race at one mile. She was indeed a stretch, finishing last. Still, O'Brien had started five horses on the turf, with one winner and two seconds - and both runners-up certainly ran well enough to win. I had spotted the trend early, as you have to do in these situations. Indeed, it was virtually a textbook case, with careful analysis and close attention uncovering a profitable and unexpected trainer angle.

Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for the payoff.