08/05/2005 12:00AM

Two good alternatives to Haskell favorites

Ryan McAlinden/EQUI-PHOTOS
If Monmouth's main track is favoring speed Sunday, Joey P. is a live longshot at 15-1 odds in the Haskell.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Who do you like in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth?

Roman Ruler is the 9-5 morning-line favorite. He edged Flower Alley by a half-length in the Grade 2 Dwyer and earned a 104 Beyer. Roman Ruler's win looks that much better when you note that Flower Alley returned to win the Grade 2 Jim Dandy by 5 1/4 lengths less than a month later, with an impressive 112 Beyer.

Although Flower Alley's victory was impressive, there are other handicapping factors that should be considered before taking a mild price on the favorite. One of the most important among them is the recent main-track bias at Monmouth. Over the seven racing days from July 27 through Aug. 4, 28 percent of the races on the dirt were won by the first-call leader. And 68 percent of those races were won by horses who were in the front half of their field at the first call.

Those statistics indicate the presence of a speed bias. That is particularly interesting in regard to the chances of Roman Ruler, who was seventh of eight at the first call in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, seventh of eight at the first call in the San Felipe, and last of six at the first call in the Dwyer.

Did Roman Ruler overcome a comparable speed bias in his Dwyer score? If so, there would be little reason for concern about how the main track at Monmouth is playing on Sunday. But a check of the July 4 card at Belmont shows that first-call leaders were blanked that day. Two horses did win from second, but one of them was heavy favorite Henny Hughes, who romped by 15 lengths in the Tremont. The four other winners were all fourth or farther back at that call, so it seems that Roman Ruler was actually assisted by the prevailing trend that day.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a speed bias will be present on Sunday, and it is still possible for Roman Ruler to win, even if a speed bias hinders him. But if he is hindered there will be no betting value at 9-5, and bettors should look for an alternative.

The early speed in the Haskell field is Joey P. He has led at the first call in 3 of his 6 career starts, all at Monmouth, including a pair of sprints that showed much faster fractions than the ones likely to be seen in this route race. Joey P. also boasts two recent triple-digit Beyers, a 101 earned in a 5 1/2-length win in a six-furlong, two-other-than allowance, and a 108 earned in a Grade 3 triumph going six furlongs. The concern is that he tired late and finished a contending third with a 90 Beyer as the 1-2 favorite when he stretched out to a mile for the first time in his most recent start. If he simply doesn't want to go 1 1/8 miles, Joey P. will fade again while asked to cover an extra furlong. But if he simply regressed following two consecutive much-improved races, Joey P. will be dangerous.

Should bettors give Joey P. the benefit of the doubt if a speed bias is present? If his odds are anywhere close to his 15-1 morning line, the answer is yes, absolutely. He isn't a high-percentage bet, but he doesn't have to be one to be worth a play. All he needs is a 7 percent chance of winning to make 15-1 profitable. If a speed bias moves him up, Joey P.'s chance of upsetting this field should be about double that number.

The other horse I like in the Haskell is Park Avenue Ball. He dueled early in the Grade 3 Long Branch Breeders' Cup, then pulled away to win by 6 1/4 lengths with a 104 Beyer. None of the first-call leaders won any of the seven dirt races at Monmouth that day, so any help from a speed bias on Sunday would make Park Avenue Ball formidable. Factor in his consistency with a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Withers in his previous start, and he looms as the horse to beat in the Haskell. Park Avenue Ball is the third betting choice on the morning line at 3-1, which is an acceptable price.

Sun King, with blinkers added, led throughout in his 5 3/4-length triumph in the Grade 3 Leonard Richards at Delaware and would seem to be a candidate to be helped by a speed bias. But on closer inspection it turns out that he was helped by a speed bias that day, with 6 of the 11 main track races (I didn't count the Arabian race) won by horses who were either first or second at the first call. He would be fortunate to find as strong a bias on Sunday, and to match that performance. I will see if I can beat him as the 5-2 second choice on the morning line.