01/23/2004 1:00AM

Turfway has good spots to find some overlays


LEXINGTON - During the deepest, darkest parts of the winter meet at Turfway, the quality of the races offered is nothing to get excited about. But there is something to be said for the betting opportunities that are offered in inexpensive races. Handicappers who refuse to look beyond Gulfstream and Santa Anita at this time of year might find that it isn't easy to deduce which of a dozen or so expensive, rapidly developing 3-year-olds, in the hands of some of the sharpest trainers in the business, is going to improve by eight or 10 lengths on race day, rather than the five or six lengths many of his rivals can be expected to move up.

Racing at Turfway isn't nearly as complicated as that. If you can find any reason to expect three or four lengths of improvement in a contender in a $7,500 nonwinners-of-two-races-lifetime, you can rest assured that it is unlikely the other contenders will be set to deliver career-best performances that will leave your selection in the dust.

Some of the best overlays in inexpensive races are horses who have shown subtle signs of improvement. Uncharacteristic early speed is one of the most productive form signals, especially if the horse has demonstrated the ability to finish strongly in one or more other recent races.

That was the case when Call His Bluff set a faster-than-par pace before tiring to finish a contending third in a $7,500 N2L in the mud at Turfway on Jan. 2. He was a 33-1 longshot in that race, so I expected an overlaid price when he returned at that same level eight days later. I was intrigued by the fact that he was cutting back from a mile to six furlongs, since the pace figure I gave him for the first six furlongs of his Jan. 2 race suggested that he would be a serious threat to win. I envisioned him rating in contending position just off the pace vs. the faster sprint fractions he would see, and saw him challenging the leaders late. But I couldn't quite convince myself to make him my top selection in the analysis I wrote for that race, because of his tendency to settle for minor prizes. Call His Bluff had managed to win just one race from 19 starts, with one second-place finish, and six thirds. Hesitant to back him in the win slot, I picked him to finish second.

The race did not unfold as I had expected it to. Instead of rating a couple of lengths off the pace, Call His Bluff was not asked for anything early and was allowed to fall back to ninth in that field of 11, eight lengths off the pace. He lagged down the backstretch and appeared to have little chance of participating in the exacta entering the far turn.

Turfway race caller Mike Battaglia is well-known for his trademark elongated "gaining ground" call whenever a closer is making significant progress. When Battaglia is in prime form, you are tempted to believe there are at least seven a's in the word "gaining," and as many u's in the word "ground." Perhaps the best indication that Call His Bluff was in the midst of running a big race was when Battaglia suddenly spotted him in midstretch, and he was gaining so quickly that Battaglia did not dare to linger on the phrase. That was the right decision, since Call His Bluff missed catching the leader by only a length, and passed him a couple of strides past the wire. That was a strong effort for a horse who had just tired in his last start, especially when you note that he made his progress in a race that featured a faster-than-par come-home time.

It seemed fair to guess that the sprint was a tune-up designed to enable him to finish more strongly when he was stretched back out to a mile on Jan. 22. Although I was not enthused about his 20-1-2-6 record, I was consoled by the fact that Secret Agent Tom, who was clearly the horse to beat, had also come up short frequently, with a 12-1-5-4 record. Call His Bluff was the betting value, and deserved to be the top pick.

Dean Sarvis was aboard again when Call His Bluff tracked the early leader, then challenged him while under a hold. When Sarvis asked him for more, Call His Bluff quickly surged clear, then drew off to an eight-length lead in mid-stretch. That spurt may have been premature, since 3-5 favorite Secret Agent Tom narrowed the margin considerably late, but Call His Bluff held on well enough to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths. Win bettors collected $11.60.

The real beauty of this race can be found in the margins between the horses at the finish. The race was not nearly as competitive as most of the races at the fancier venues are. Once you got past the two best horses in the race, the others were not a threat. There was a decisive five-length gap between Secret Agent Tom and the third horse. The other margins were 4 lengths, 2 3/4, 7, 4 1/2, 6, 4 3/4, and 5 1/4.

The quality of racing at Turfway will improve as the meet progresses, but there are still bettable races to be found right now for those who are willing to play them.