06/18/2004 12:00AM

Watch for Churchill speed at Ellis


LEXINTGTON, Ky. - The main track at Churchill Downs tends to play more fairly to all running styles than the other tracks on the Kentucky circuit.

Of course, there are some days when the trend is noticeably different from the norm, and handicappers should make a point of noting when those exceptions occur. This will allow them to capitalize by betting on the horses who were hindered by the aberrant trend when more normal circumstances are likely next time out. Unfortunately, since the number of days when the usual bias trend is not in force are in the minority, handicappers have only a limited number of opportunities to find good bets of that type.

The ideal situation for bets like these is when a race meet is winding down at one track where the bias is distinctly different than the one usually found on the next stop on the circuit.

That is the case right now in Kentucky. Churchill's spring meet ends on July 5, and Ellis Park opens on July 7. Ellis manages to fly under the radar of many handicappers and is not perceived to have any definitive bias by most of them. But Ellis has been very kind to front-runners in recent years. If that trend remains in force, front-runners who have been worn down by off-the-pace types at Churchill will prove to be very hard to catch with help from the speed-favoring Ellis main track, and against the softer company they are likely to see there. Since the tendency to favor speed at Ellis is the norm rather than the exception, bettors can expect to find many chances to take advantage when horses from Churchill make their first start there.

Since the horses currently racing at Churchill will go to a number of different tracks when the meet ends, you can't count on any particular runner on your horses-to-watch list to show up at Ellis. But enough of them will make the trip to make the list worth compiling.

Here are some interesting possibilities from recent racing days:

Storm Unbridled was two lengths clear through a swift 21.18-second opening quarter-mile, held a head advantage following a 44.67-second half-mile, then caved in and finished eighth of nine in a six-furlong $8,000 claiming race at Churchill on June 11. He was claimed from the race by trainer Ken Hickman.

Exploit Lad was only a head behind the leader through a 21.12-second opening quarter, then led by a length after a half-mile in 44.33. A closer, King of Mardi Gras, took advantage of the favorable pace scenario when he rallied from sixth to upset those $30,000 claimers in that sprint on June 11, but Exploit Lad ran a strong race to hold on for second, beaten by just three-quarters of a length.

There were no outstanding performances by front-runners on June 12. When you see horses who raced at Churchill on June 13 in their most recent start, do not give any extra credit to the front-runners who lost. It was an exception to the usual trend, with nine of the 11 dirt races won by horses who were in the front half of their field at the first call, and three front-running winners.

There were no front-running winners from the eight races on the main track on June 16. Beth Byars, a 3-year-old filly who debuted in a $15,000 maiden claiming sprint, made things even tougher for herself when she flew through a 21.65-second opening quarter. That was fast enough to fry Meet Me at Nine, the third betting choice at 5-2, who was a half-length behind her at that point, then surrendered and finished last.

But Beth Byars continued gamely. She briefly lost the lead when she was challenged by two opponents, then fought back to be clear in midstretch. Unfortunately for those who bet her to win at 28-1 in that race, she was caught by second betting choice Zilia, who was helped by the fast opening split when she rallied from last place to score by two lengths. If she makes her next start at Ellis, Beth Byars can win for that same claiming price.

None of the horses who led at the first call held on to win any of the 10 races on the dirt at Churchill on June 17. Silky Summer had every chance to be the exception when the fifth race, a $40,000 claiming race for fillies and mares scheduled for the turf, was moved to the dirt. Four of her opponents scratched, leaving a four-horse field. She is normally a closer, but jockey Cornelio Velasquez gave her a clever ride, leading through snail-like fractions of 25.87 seconds, 51.11, and 1:16.55, but she still wilted and beat just one rival.

Her failure under circumstances that could not have been much easier makes the performance of Island Saga in the eighth race look that much better. Island Saga was only a head behind a 21.67-second opening quarter, then drew off to be a comfortable two-length winner over $30,000 nonwinners-of-two-lifetime sprinters for trainer Stacy Hinton. She was claimed by Jeff Greenhill, and will be hard to handle if she turns up at a speed-favoring track next time.