06/09/2006 12:00AM

Turning to babies, two catch the eye


NEW YORK - A few thoughts on recent racing matters while listening to Tom Durkin read the 43 late scratches on a sun-splashed afternoon the day before the Belmont Stakes:

* Of course it's way too soon to start thinking about next year's 3-year-olds, but two juveniles have already made unusually fast and early fast debuts at the Belmont meeting.

On May 5, Out of Gwedda, a $100,000 2-year-old purchase by Out of Place out of the Gone West mare Gwedda, led all the way to win by six lengths, setting fractions of 22.19 and 44.76 en route to a sparkling final time of 56.98. That translated to a Beyer Speed Figure of 97, the fastest recorded by a juvenile in America so far this year.

Then last Saturday, Scat Dancer, a $250,000 Johannesburg yearling from the Mr. Prospector mare Love Style, survived an early duel and drew off to win by 5 1/4 lengths, running the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.75. That was good for a Beyer of 93 that may have even been a tad conservative, and it is the second-best juvenile figure of the year.

The runner-up in both races was Trip to the Bank, a well-regarded Trippi colt who was favored at 9-10 against Out of Gwedda in his debut and received Beyers of 78 in his two efforts, which would have been more than good enough to win most early-season dashes.

It's rare to see a pair of winning juvenile debuts earn such high figures so early in the season - a Beyer above 90 is usually enough to make a horse the favorite for the Hopeful. The first stakes race of the year in New York for 2-year-old males is the Tremont July 4.

One guess who trains both Out of Gwedda and Scat Dancer: Todd Pletcher, whose dominance of eastern 2-year-old racing is, if anything, growing stronger with each passing year.

* New York horseplayers who feel like they are seeing more statebred races than ever at Belmont this year are absolutely right. In the 21 cards and 190 races run at Belmont during May, there were 58 statebred races, slightly more than 30 percent of the total menu. There were four programs with at least four statebred races, including the Metropolitan Handicap card. The New York Racing Association is on target to run as many as 800 statebred races this year, up from just over 400 three years ago.

The increase is not simply a matter of carding more races for the higher number of statebred maidens on the grounds, but also of expanding restricted opportunities for the veteran statebreds who previously had to move to open company after winning their statebred second-level allowance condition. A $25,000 optional-claiming opportunity has been added to that second-level allowance condition, allowing horses with multiple victories to return to that condition, and a restricted third-level allowance condition was recently added for some statebred divisions.

Optional claiming races are one of the most misunderstood conditions in racing. Some horseplayers seem to be under the impression that they are weaker events than allowance races, and some simulcast hosts routinely refer to allowance horses running in these events as dropping in class or facing easier company. Nevertheless, a second-level allowance with an optional claiming price of $25,000 is by definition a tougher race than a straight second-level allowance, because the fields include not only horses seeking their third career victory but old-timers who might have half a dozen or more such triumphs.

* Some of the recent discussion about gate scratches in the wake of the breakdowns of Barbaro and Horatio Nelson has suggested that horseplayers are angered when horses are scratched before the start, and that this somehow puts additional pressure on jockeys or track officials not to scratch a horse. In fact, the opposite is true.

The customers are not a source of blame or contributing factor in these situations. Every rational horseplayer would prefer to get a refund or an alternate selection than to have his money stuck on a horse that a jockey or veterinarian thinks will deliver a subpar performance. Only the tiny sliver of money bet on future-book wagers go up in smoke when a horse is withdrawn from the betting at the last minute.

The only other people who complain about gate scratches are multirace players, who may then get stuck with a post-time favorite they either don't like or already have. These complaints, however, are not directed at riders or officials who scratch the horse but at the inadequacy of tote systems in not permitting alternate and backup selections in these wagers.