01/16/2003 1:00AM

Two sprints and a stretch makes fine exercise


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The potency of the two-sprint stretchout pattern has been common knowledge ever since the computer studies in Bill Quirin's breakthrough book, "Winning at the Races," were published nearly a quarter-century ago.

But these days, with so much attention being paid to flashier handicapping factors, this basic form pattern is often overlooked, though it can point out horses set to improve at big prices.

Two recent examples occurred within the span of a week on Aqueduct's inner track, when a pair of New York-bred maidens lit up the tote board - one starting off a $33,508 pick four, and the other keying a $48,476 trifecta.

On Jan. 2, a 3-year-old New York-bred filly named Toga's Triumph, saddled by Gary Contessa, the meet-leading trainer, paid $90.50 for winning a 1 1/16-mile maiden route in her third lifetime start.

She began her career in November with two ugly-looking lines at six furlongs, finishing 11th, beaten 14 lengths in her debut at 42-1, and then ninth, beaten nearly 24 lengths at 93-1 in her second start.

In neither race did Toga's Triumph enter contention. Seven lengths was the closest she got to the leader at any call.

Besides the top trainer, and the addition of Lasix, there was nothing other than the stretchout to suggest that Toga's Triumph had anything better to give. She rallied from the back of the pack, was still fifth at the stretch call, and won going away.

Exactly one week later, it happened again when Napoleon Solo used front-running tactics to win his statebred maiden route to the tune of $55.50.

The particulars were a little different, but the result was the same: two races at six furlongs, beaten 13 lengths each time, followed by a vastly improved performance when stretched out.

By the way the sire of Napoleon Solo is Rockamundo, the horse who rocked the racing world when he paid $218 for winning the 1993 Arkansas Derby.

The one that got away

The stretchout after two sprints can be a harbinger of a big race by lightly raced horses such as Toga's Triumph and Napoleon Solo, but the spirit of the pattern can also be used to forecast improvement by veteran runners who have been freshened.

Last year's most emphatic and enduring example occurred in the Met Mile at Belmont Park, when Swept Overboard turned in the most dominant performance of the season to win one of America's most prestigious races by nearly five lengths, at a $24.60 mutuel.

After winning the Ancient Title Handicap with a Beyer Speed Figure of 122, and then finishing fourth, beaten just one length into the teeth of a dead-rail trip at Belmont in the 2001 Breeders' Cup Sprint, Swept Overboard had closed with a rush to win the Hollywood Turf Express Handicap in late November, and was then put away for the winter.

He returned five months later to lose twice in Grade 3 sprints at even money, first finishing fifth going 6 1/2 furlongs on the quirky downhill course at Santa Anita, and then finishing third in a six-furlong sprint at Bay Meadows.

Though he earned a Beyer Figure of only 97 in the turf race and 103 on dirt, buried within the dirt race was a three-length gain into a 12-second final furlong.

The two sprints served their purpose, and Swept Overboard was primed for a return to top form in the Met Mile, where he matched his top figure of 122, the top figure given to a horse in 2002.

The lessons for those of us (myself included) who were thrown off the scent were twofold:

1. Beware of horses who have recently returned from a layoff and are stretching out after a pair of shorter races.

2. When a horse like Swept Overboard has already demonstrated the ability to "do the fig," assume the trainer is orchestrating a return to former heights, provided the price is right.