08/23/2004 11:00PM

Weakest level strong at shore

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OCEANPORT, N. J. - When it comes to maiden class levels at Monmouth Park, the bottom of the barrel is older $10,000 claimers. There is no lower tag for which to run a horse who has never won a race. Each year - and at nearly all racetracks - this is the scene of some of the worst races of the meet, many of them inscrutable events populated by runners with sub-zero Beyer Speed Figures going off at single-digit odds, or huge dropdowns going off as odds-on favorites.

Of course, these races have always been very weak across the board. Occasionally, there would be a random race or two each meet at this level that would come up strong and yield an above-average Beyer. But there are valid reasons why these horses are at the lowest possible level, and they usually run accordingly. The average Beyer for this level at Monmouth Park is 56. To compare, the bottom maiden claiming level at Philadelphia Park is $8,000 and the average Beyer is 51. At Pimlico, which also runs $8,000 maiden claimers, the average Beyer is 52.

Making matters worse, attrition causes the local $10,000 maiden claiming races to get weaker and weaker as the summer wears on. By this time of the year, the maiden ranks are highly diluted, because the fastest horse graduates each time a race is run at the level. The rest of them then face off two weeks later, and another one gets voted off the island, leaving the weakest of the bunch to fight it out again. And so on. This pattern, obviously, makes it even tougher to find strong fields at this stage of the meet, especially at this inherently soft level.

For some reason, however, we've seen a handful of exceptionally fast $10,000 maiden claiming sprints at Monmouth in recent weeks, and it's tough to find a valid reason for it, outside of the fact that these are simply above-average horses for this level. One race that caught the eye was the opener on July 23, won by Comingupforair in 1:11.45. The following race on the card, an $8,000 claimer for New Jersey-bred fillies and mares, went in 1:11.93. Worth Springs then won an open $8,000 claimer and was timed in 1:11.25. Comingupforair, who was dropping out of another strong race, for $20,000, earned a 69 Beyer, well above the average of 56.

The ninth race on Aug. 5 was another example. Mulberry Man covered the six furlongs in 1:11.61, a final time that compares favorably with other races at the same distance on the card. The Beyer was 66, another figure well above the average, and it looked even better when runner-up Bold Stroke came back and won yet another turbocharged $10,000 maiden claimer last week. That race, the ninth on on Aug. 19, yielded a solid 74 Beyer. That figure approaches the average Beyer for maiden special weight races at this track (78), suggesting that in the weeks ahead, this is a race that should provide several next-out winners.

If these were runaway wins by established, class-dropping horses, it would be easy to dismiss these results. But while all three of the aforementioned races were won by the betting favorite, they also had winners who won by reasonable margins.

Also, the second-place finishers returned to win in each of the first two instances, further indicating that the bloated Beyers are not simply due to a couple of bullies picking on lesser-developed peers. Rather, it's a sign that the overall strength of this class is well above the norm.

"This is just a very strong level this year," said Mark Hopkins, who is responsible for computing Beyer Speed Figures at Monmouth Park. "Very strong."