03/08/2007 12:00AM

Two nice hits in Vegas not good enough

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - After a week of sun and 80 degrees in the Caribbean followed by more ideal weather in Las Vegas during Daily Racing Form's Handicapping Expo, Mother Nature reared her ugly head soon after my red-eye flight touched down at Albany International on Monday morning.

The wind howled, and an imposing mass of frozen snow blocked access to home, sweet home. As I fetched the necessary implements to shovel and chisel my way to the front door, I kept telling myself, "Two weeks till spring." After finally clearing a path through the arctic landscape and coming in from the numbing cold, I logged on to weather.com for a chilling reminder that March was coming in like a lion, at least in the Northeast:

"Monday night: Significant blowing and drifting snow. Tuesday: Bitterly cold. Winds occasionally gusting over 40 mph; wind chills approaching -20F. High 8F."

Talk about your rude homecomings.

Not quite good enough to cash

The Expo was a great time, and the lavishly appointed Wynn Las Vegas is a sight to behold. Of course, for panelists and attendees the best part about the Wynn was its state of the art race and sports book, where the Expo concluded with a handicapping contest for 150 players. The format allowed for hypothetical $2 across-the-board wagers on any 10 races from Aqueduct and Gulfstream, with corresponding payoff odds capped at 25-1, 12-1, and 6-1. The strategy is simple: See if there's anything live at 25-1, and work your way down from there; if you can't find something with a pulse that's at least 10-1, go to the next race.

My only hit early on was a runner-up finish from 9-1 shot Truly Blushed in a turf sprint. But in Aqueduct's eighth race, Waytotheleft was coming off a big win first time off the claim by Gary Contessa and looked to have a puncher's chance in the Broadway Handicap. I liked that she was aggressively spotted, and you rarely see 22-1 on the combination of Contessa and Ramon Dominguez. I went from pretender to contender in 1:10.88, after Waytotheleft's rail-skimming score from off the pace added $46.60, $19.00, and $11.40 to the account.

When my final bullet, Heck With Jones, won Gulfstream's nightcap at better than 5-1 and brought my total up to $118.10, I thought it might be enough to land in the top five and take home a check. Alas, it was only good for eighth, as seven other contestants not only smoked out Waytotheleft, but did a better job with the rest of the races. The winner, Troy Levy, had the difference maker in Bound Notebook, a 27-1 shot who ran second to favored Flashy Bull in race 8 at Gulfstream, returning $20.80 and $10.20.

The end result was a bit of a letdown, but not nearly as bad as my sixth-place finish in Penn National's World Series of Handicapping back in 1997, where fifth was worth $5,000 and sixth was a handshake and a long drive home.

Going against favorites in two stakes

Some very nice 3-year-old prospects run Saturday, two of which - Soaring By and Longley - come out of a first-level allowance at Gulfstream to try the Louisiana Derby and the Gotham, respectively. Each will be making his second start of the year, and just his third overall, but neither is without a chance despite stretching out and stepping up in class.

Soaring By is on a promising figure pattern after slightly surpassing his debut Beyer (94). He appears set for a forward move, and should be a square price in a field that includes his more well-known stablemate Circular Quay and Liquidity, who has been runner-up in the Hollywood Futurity and the Sham since adding blinkers. Another to keep a close eye on in the Louisiana Derby is the locally based Ketchikan, who was under only mild urging to win a first-level allowance in racehorse time three weeks ago.

Longley has his work cut out in the Gotham against Summer Doldrums, who Beyered 106 like breaking sticks in the Whirlaway - especially since he must break from post 8. If you think Longley is fated for a tough wide trip, and Summer Doldrums might bounce off that big figure, the right alternative may be Cowtown Cat.

Cowtown Cat broke through with a new top Beyer winning first out this year, and was a respectable third in the Swale when he ran back on relatively short rest. He's on a bounce-rebound pattern with two sprints under his belt, and has had five weeks between starts.