10/16/2003 11:00PM

You still want early speed


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Many of my friends who follow racing and live outside of Kentucky have assumed all along that most race cards at this Keeneland meet have been as speed favoring as they were at recent meetings, when it was common to see three or four or more front-running winners on a card. There have been a few days like that, but not as many as there used to be.

Most of my friends in Kentucky who follow the races believe the main track has been playing fair to all running styles. Although the track has played fairer than usual on some days, and favored closers on one day, that isn't the prevailing trend.

It usually takes a couple of weeks of racing to get a good handle on the pace bias at a new meeting. Through Oct. 16,

10 cards have been run at Keeneland. So far, early speed has not been overpowering on the dirt the way it has often been at past meetings. But horses with early and tactical speed have definitely won more than their fair share of races.

A check of the numbers proves the point. There have been 73 races run on the main track. Nineteen of them were won by front-runners, for a healthy 26 percent winners. If the main track was playing fair to closers, you should expect to see a similar number of winners who rallied from last place at the first call to win. But only five horses have done that.

Eleven winners on the dirt were second at the first call, but only three horses bid from next-to-last to win. Another 11 races were won by horses who were two positions behind the leader in third. But there were only four winners who were two positions ahead of the last horse who were successful.

With an average of just 1.9 front-running winners per card, rather than the three or four some handicappers have expected, many bettors have not picked up on the fact that 56 percent of the races have been won by horses who were among the first three at the first call.

Races on the turf have lived up to expectations throughout this meet with horses who rally from off the pace. There has been only one front-running winner from 21 races on the grass.

General trends are important, but handicappers evaluating horses pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup who ran last time in Kentucky should consider the details of how a main track bias, or the lack of one, might have influenced those horses.

In the Distaff, Take Charge Lady was not assisted by a bias when she tracked the leaders, grabbed the lead, and was almost tagged by You late in her victory in the Spinster.

Be Gentle, pre-entered in the Juvenile Fillies, was one of three front-running winners from eight races on the dirt when she won the Alcibiades. Tactical speed was preferred when Class Above, also a candidate for the Juvenile Fillies, was up close at the first call in third and led the rest of the way in her 16-length triumph at Turfway in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Among those pre-entered in the Sprint, Cajun Beat had the preferred style while up close early in the Kentucky Cup Sprint. Clock Stopper overcame a mild trend when he rallied from fifth of six to win the Perryville at Keeneland going away. Ethan Man was helped by a bias in the Phoenix when he finished second. Great Notion's poor start hurt his chances, so his sixth-place finish in the Phoenix should be disregarded. Private Horde ran on a fair track when he won the Marfa at Turfway.

Tiger Hunt, pre-entered in the Juvenile, was assisted as a closer in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, run on a day when early and tactical speed did not fare well. He also was helped by the pace of the race, which was fast early and slow late and enabled closers to dominate the major placings. Nevertheless, he is a lightly raced, rapidly developing 2-year-old who may improve enough in the Juvenile to minimize the significance of those trends.

Congaree, whose first preference is the Classic, led most of the way in a five-horse field in the Kentucky Cup Classic, but did not capitalize while finishing second as the 1-2 favorite.