05/26/2005 11:00PM

Two bias-fighters set to win at solid prices


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The main track at Churchill Downs is considered by most handicappers to be fair to all running styles, but that is an oversimplification. Actually, it is fairer than most tracks to horses who rally from off the pace. The win percentage of front-runners is usually lower at Churchill than it is at Keeneland and at Turfway, but that doesn't mean it is unbiased.

The win percentage for first-call leaders on the dirt at Churchill is typically in the low to mid-20's, which means that one of every four or five wins. Since most of those races contain more than four or five runners, horses with early speed are still winning more than their fair share of races.

On days when horses with early speed perform poorly at Keeneland, where front-runners are routinely expected to win, their lack of success attracts attention. Those horses often surface on the horses-to-watch lists of track bias-oriented handicappers. But when the same thing happens at Churchill it is usually ignored, since early speed is not supposed to be important there.

May 19 was a poor day for early speed at Churchill. None of the eight races on the dirt were won by the early leader, and half of them were won by horses that rallied from the rear half of the pack. Most handicappers won't be mining those races for speed horses to bet back next time, so we should get some extra betting value for going against the crowd. Let's see what we can find.

Solitary Ritzi flashed early speed and surrendered and finished far back as a 93-1 longshot in a $30,000 N2L two races ago when he returned from a 4 1/2-month vacation. He plunged to $10,000 N2L in the fourth race on May 19. Solitary Ritzi set the pace for a half-mile and held on much better to finish third, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths at 23-1. Not only did he earn a better pace figure, but also nearly doubled his Beyer Speed Figure from 30 to 57. Factor in the Beyers in the high 60's he earned last year, the chance he will improve third time back from the layoff, and the fact that early speed was not as productive as usual that day, and Solitary Ritzi will be a prime contender at a square price if he faces a similar field next time.

Golden Victress isn't a need-to-lead type, but she was fewer lengths behind the leader at the first call than she was at the finish of her last three races prior to her start in the fifth race at Churchill on May 19. She flashed good early speed in that race when she dueled with 5-2 second betting choice Pick Five, gradually edged clear from that rival, but was passed late by a pair of closers.

Golden Victress improved her Beyer from 54 to 66, earned a much-improved pace figure, and fought a bias while finishing third, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths as a 41-1 longshot. She is also eligible to continue to improve next time because she will be making her third start since a 10-month layoff.

An added benefit is that while she ran well while dueling against a bias, she doesn't necessarily have to duel again next time. She has occasionally demonstrated the ability to outkick rivals late, so she could easily show tactical speed while rating just behind the leaders, then try to slip past them next time. Continued progress would give Golden Victress a chance to win in a comparable field at overlaid odds.

The key to betting on horses with early and tactical speed at Churchill is to make sure you get a square price. At Churchill, I like to hold out for something in the neighborhood of 5-1 or better in a race that figures to be competitive. To the extent that the horse in question looks stronger than his rivals, you can lower that requirement a bit.