04/03/2003 1:00AM

Two vulnerable chalks make pick 3 look juicy


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - When a deep closer is the morning-line favorite in a dirt race, handicappers can be fairly certain that value exists elsewhere in the field. The edge enjoyed by early speed on North American dirt tracks has been well documented statistically, and it is a linear relationship - the closer a horse is to the early lead, the better its chances of winning.

That fact makes Saturday's Santa Anita Derby a very interesting race, because it starts a $1 million guaranteed pick six and is part of a nationally televised pick three with two other Kentucky Derby preps - and the 9-5 favorite on Santa Anita's morning line is a hyped horse who comes from the clouds.

People have been talking about Atswhatimtalknbout for three months now, ever since the $900,000 son of A.P. Indy erased an 11-length deficit to win his debut at six furlongs. In that race, quite amazingly, he was still seventh and five lengths from the lead at the stretch call - the stretch call! - and got up in time.

Moviemakers and media types are quick to fall in love with horses who come flying through the stretch in the nick of time. Perhaps it's no coincidence that a group that includes Steven Spielberg purchased an interest in Atswhatimtalknbout before his nose loss in the San Felipe with a furious outside rally.

Atswhatimtalknbout is very well bred, and he is possessed of a long stride and a hard-charging style that's thrilling to watch. He's the perfect fit for a race like the Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles around sweeping turns. Who knows, by the time June rolls around he might even be the favorite for that race, or at least seen as the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Empire Maker's bid for a Triple Crown.

In terms of cold, hard percentages, though, Atswhatimtalknbout has no business being the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, and if he is - win or lose - he is the underlay of the year in big stakes races so far.

Forget for a moment that Atswhatimtalknbout is still eligible for a second-level allowance, has never been the distance, and has never carried this much weight. His biggest problem is the fact that he has been last or next to last in the early stages every time out, and - most importantly - he has not consistently demonstrated an ability to get his big rump into striking range at the pre-stretch call, which is the make-or-break trait for any off-the-pace horse.

The right favorite is Kafwain, a three-time graded stakes winner, including the San Vicente on the Santa Anita track with a Beyer of 115.

Kafwain gets a switch to Pat Valenzuela, the runaway leader at the meet (and one of racing's all-time best from the gate), after trainer Bob Baffert was unhappy with Kafwain being left with too much to do under Victor Espinoza on a speed-favoring track in the Louisiana Derby.

Kafwain comes from off the pace, too, but that he was close to a 44-second half in the San Vicente says he is no plodder, and he will get the jump on Atswhatimtalknbout beneath the ever-aggressive Valenzuela.

Good news for those playing the pick three, consisting of the Santa Anita Derby, Illinois Derby, and the Aventura Stakes: The morning-line favorite for the Illinois Derby, Alysweep, looks vulnerable, too, and for a number of reasons.

Alysweep broke from an inside post and was unchallenged on the front end when stretched out to a mile and 70 yards in the Gotham Stakes, but breaks from post 9 in the Illinois Derby, outside several rivals who also have early speed.

He has never raced away from Aqueduct, and all four of his wins came on the inner track.

He gives weight to the rest in the field, notably 10 pounds to six of his nine rivals, several of whom come off sharp races at Hawthorne.

The pace dynamic is totally different from last year's Illinois Derby, wired in a romp by lone speed War Emblem, and has the potential for a meltdown if a scramble develops into the clubhouse turn. Adding to the confusion is that Lone Star Sky, the second choice on Hawthorne's morning line, breaks from the extreme outside and hasn't won a race in seven months.

Hitting the "all" button for the Illinois Derby may be a tempting option for pick three players.

Big A chalkfest rolls on and on and on

The chalkfest is on at Aqueduct, and this has become an annual rite of spring. Typifying the racing these days was Thursday's fifth race, in which Bonay, a well-bred shipper from Gulfstream Park, cruised at 1-10 against four hapless opponents, while attracting $279,526 of the $297,142 in the show pool.

At this transitional stage of the season, with no 2-year-olds or turf races to draw from, and with the majority of winter warriors crying for a rest, field size is small and mismatches featuring fresh and fit Florida shippers a la Bonay occur regularly. Favorites won at a 41 percent clip at the 2001 spring meet. Last year, the chalk won 92 of the first 213 races (43 percent). Favorites are winning at "only" a 38 percent clip (32 for 84) through Wednesday's racing, and it's dollars to doughnuts that figure will hold steady or rise in the coming weeks until Belmont Park opens.

This is not the time to get overly imaginative handicapping New York races.