In the Belmont Stakes, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. was willing to risk life and limb so he could squeeze through a narrow hole on the final turn. When he did, Caveat drew away to a decisive victory.

In the Preakness, Deputed Testamony saved ground all the way, slipped inside of the leader on the turn and went on to score a major upset.

In the Kentucky Derby, Sunny's Halo went outside one tiring pacesetter on the backstretch, then stayed on the rail the rest of the way while rivals like Caveat and Marfa were trying to rally wide around the turn.

Just how important was the ground that these horses saved? How can racing fans incorporate this factor into their handicapping?

Traditionally, horseplayers have been so preoccupied by the great issues in handicapping--speed, class, condition--that they have tended to ignore the truism that the rail offers the shortest way home. In my first 15 years around the track, I don't think I once heard a bettor who liked a horse because he had raced very wide in his last start, while his chief rival had sneaked through along the rail.

Over the last few years, however, increasing numbers of bettors have started to embrace the approach known as "trip handicapping," watching races closely and noting every horse's position on the turn. If horses were racing abreast of each other, with little room separating them, the innermost horse would be on the rail, the one next to him would be said to be in the 2 path, the next one in the 3 path, and so on.

If the width of a horse and rider--i.e., one path--is 3 1/2 feet, a horse who races this far from the rail all the way around a one-mile track will cover an additional 22.4 feet. On one turn, he would therefore lose 11.2 feet. If a length equals nine feet, then a horse loses 1.24 lengths for every path by which he is removed from the rail on a turn.

If Slew o' Gold raced in the 2 path on the turn in the Kentucky Derby, while Caveat was running in the 6 path, and they finished on virtually even terms, Caveat was theoretically 4.96 lengths superior to his rival. Many handicappers are using such formulas, adjusting a horse's final time according to the ground he lost on the turns.

This seems neat and inescapably logical, and yet I am still not convinced that such a mathematical approach is valid. I know, from empirical observation, that the effect of racing wide varies greatly at different tracks--possibly because of the degree the turns are banked. Racing in the 3 path at Belmont Park is a minimal disadvantage. Racing in the 3 path on Charles Town's sharp turns is frequently fatal.

Morever, the effect of going wide on a turn seems to be related to the amount of resistance a horse is encountering from the rivals inside him. If four horses are engaged in a head-and-head battle around the turn, the one in the 4 path will be facing an almost insuperable disadvantage. But when a stretch-runner is swooping past a bunch of tired leaders, losing ground does not seem to hurt much.

After the leaders had set a fast pace in the 1982 Kentucky Derby, they started to weaken and Gato del Sol accelerated past them in roughly the 7 path. From a strictly mathematical standpoint, he should have been capable of running more than seven lengths faster if he had been able to sneak through along the rail the way Caveat did Saturday. But I don't believe it; Gato del Sol never ran a better race than he did in the Derby.

Perhaps some genius will one day discover a formula that takes into account a horse's speed, his position on the turn, the contour of the racetrack on which he was running and the pace of the race. In the absence of such a formula, racing fans should simply bear in mind the lesson of the 1983 Triple Crown series. Saving and losing on the turns will often determine the outcome of races, and noting the position of horses on those turns is a necessary task for any serious handicapper.