08/05/2003 11:00PM

Whitney angle: A Saratoga special!


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Saratoga is a special place. What other racetrack draws masses of people who don't mind sweltering all day in the Adirondack steam bath, or parking in the next county, or paying $3 for a bottle of water and $3.50 for a slice of pizza? These fans love the place with a passion that transcends every inconvenience. They wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

But Saratoga is also special for the handicapper. And that was never more obvious than in last Saturday's fourth race.

At the Siro's seminars - a daily handicapping ritual at the Spa - I heard two of the most sophisticated handicappers in America make the following case for Birdstone, a well-bred 2-year-old colt making his debut for trainer Nick Zito. It was the day of the prestigious Whitney, one of the great races for older colts and geldings. And Marylou Whitney, a member of that famous racing family, was the owner of Birdstone. Wouldn't it be nice, these experts said, if she could win on Whitney Day. Later in the day, Jan Rushton, the in-house NYRA television analyst, pointed out the same angle.

Needless to say, this is not the way most of us approach a particular race. At Belmont and Aqueduct you don't have much need for such logic. No downstate New Yorker would be caught dead making such a seemingly silly argument. But Saratoga is a special place, and this sort of thinking can't be easily dismissed.

Birdstone blew the field away, galloping away by more than 12 lengths, hardly urged at all. He earned a huge Beyer of 99. After the race, trainer Nick Zito said, yes indeed, they had been planning for months to run this horse on Whitney Day. And Mrs. Whitney, and all the players who made the Whitney connection (and a few clockers as well, I'm told), were all very happy with the result. Perhaps in future we could be provided with other such personal information - owners' birthdays, for example, or trainers' anniversaries. That might give us all an additional edge up here at the Spa.

Saratoga is also special for the unusual bargains you can sometimes find. In last Sunday's eighth race, for example, a field of seven raced on the turf in a high-class allowance race. A speed horse named Miss Terrible shipped in from California and was made a 3-5 favorite. She had the clear top Beyer Figure of 103 and the services of Jerry Bailey. But she was extremely suspect for the following reasons:

* Even in the early days of the meeting, speed on the turf seemed to be at a disadvantage. Most races were dominated by closers.

* It had rained heavily the previous two days and this was the first race on the turf since all the moisture had softened up the grass. And Miss Terrible had earned her top Beyer racing on an uncontested lead at Hollywood Park and on rock-hard turf - conditions completely the reverse of what she would be facing at Saratoga.

* She was surrounded by two or possibly even three other speed horses, so her life was likely to get very complicated in the running.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, far and away the leading trainer at the meet, had an Irish-bred closer in this race, a horse named Dancal, coming in from Dubai. With the absurdly top-heavy price on Miss Terrible, this Pletcher runner escaped at odds of 9-1 - a shockingly big price since normally everything Pletcher runs is bet down into dust. When Miss Terrible came to a screaming halt in the stretch, Dancal took over the lead and survived a long stretch battle with another logical closer, Vespers. Dancal paid $21.40. The exacta returned $86.50.

Cycling pattern scores big

Of course, Saratoga is not in a totally different racing universe. Many of the same old handicapping techniques apply here as anywhere else. For me, since I had not followed the Belmont meeting carefully, I had to rely on what was on the paper - mostly the Beyer Figures and a knowledge of trainers, track conditions, and a vision of how each race might be run. And the Beyer Figures, more specifically the Beyer Figures cycling pattern, in which a top effort is expected after a peak-bounce-recovery sequence, had a big day on Aug. 1. Four horses fit the pattern to perfection, or as near as you can come.

* Third race: Impetuous Fling finishes a well-beaten second, but at 16-1.

* Fifth race: Cloak of Vagueness wins and pays $8.10, and with Jerry Bailey up, no easy trick.

* Seventh race: Clever Electrician finishes second at 5-2, but certainly would have won with even a remote semblance of an intelligent ride.

* Ninth race: Scuttlebuttin finishes up the track. She was suspect at the distance of 1 1/8 miles, but at 15-1 you had to take a shot.

The next day I played the role of public handicapper at the Siro's seminar. I wanted to show off the value of the Beyer Figures, so I looked for some other runners with the same pattern as Friday's four plays. All I could come up with was Auto City in the fifth. In a tough race, I thought he could get into the mix at odds of 8-1.

This selection moved up nicely to challenge three wide on the turn, stayed in contention until the top of the stretch, and then gasped his way back through the field.

I missed being a star by one day. Some things remain the same no matter where you're playing.