07/18/2003 12:00AM

In two-horse race, take the speed

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When racing fans arrived at Ellis Park on July 10, they had no way of knowing they were going to witness the first match race ever run there.

It wasn't a stakes, or an allowance, or even an open claiming race. It was a $50,000 maiden claiming race for fillies and mares that had been scheduled to be run on the turf. When wet weather caused the race to be moved to the main track, seven of the nine horses in the field scratched, leaving just two to race, and the distance was changed from 1 1/16 miles to a mile.

Once handicappers realized that two horses who had been expected to be only bit players would battle each other one on one, they were left with an interesting handicapping decision to make. Would they prefer the one with the best recent form, or the one with the most tactical speed? If You Believe was a deep closer who had been last at the first call in seven of the 10 races showing on her page, including each of her last five, all at route distances. She was also next-to-last at the first call in two of the three other races. Her average early deficit had been slightly more than 15 lengths. Although she had no early speed, If You Believe did own the better Beyers, and had shown more ability than her opponent, finishing in the front half of her field in three of her last four starts.

Her opponent, Heldinhighesteem, had raced four times, all at sprint distances ranging from five to seven furlongs, and had not yet managed to finish in the front half of the field in any of her races. She had performed respectably as a 2-year-old, running evenly to finish fifth, then fourth, but had checked in ninth and 11th in a pair of races this year. Her best Beyers made her a contender, but she had earned only an 18 while running seven furlongs in her last start, 39 points lower than the 57 earned by If You Believe last time out. The extra furlong Heldinhighesteem would have to cover July 10 was a big concern.

If You Believe was the better horse on paper, but pace handicappers knew that Heldinhighesteem was all but certain to control the fractions. Would that be enough of an edge to overcome the form advantage of If You Believe? If You Believe figured to get a good ride from Jose Martinez Jr., who had won 12 races at the recently completed Churchill meet. But pace-oriented handicappers had to wonder whether 16-year-old apprentice Dallas King, who had never won a race, would fully appreciate and be able to capitalize on the large pace advantage that he and Heldinhighesteem held in this race. If You Believe was made the 1-5 favorite, while Heldinhighesteem was held in moderate esteem by bettors, who made her about even-money.

As it turned out, King could not have delivered a better ride. He and Heldinhighesteem could have led by a large margin during the early stages. But he slowed down the pace while leading by only a head through a 25.21-second opening quarter. They opened up a comfortable 3 1/2-length advantage following a half-mile in a tepid 49.81, then stole the race by strolling through a 26.90 interior fraction that led to a 1:16.71 six-furlong split. That breather left Heldinhighesteem with enough energy in reserve to increase her lead from 2 1/2 lengths to four lengths in midstretch. Rather than fading late as she had been expected to do, Heldinhighesteem increased her lead to win the race by 4 3/4 lengths, and ran her last quarter in 25.15.

Later that day, King doubled his career win total by taking the sixth race aboard Crafty Lover at $13.20.