07/28/2004 11:00PM

Avoid first-off-claim from big dogs


LEXINGTON, Ky. - When most handicappers analyze a recent claim, the claiming record of the trainer starting the horse is scrutinized. The prior trainer hardly factors into the equation.

This can be an oversight. Some trainers have a history of getting burned with claims. Others rarely lose a horse for less than it is worth.

To look more into this area, earlier this week I printed the past performances of horses claimed this year from the leading trainers of the recently concluded Churchill Downs meet - Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, and Tom Amoss. All claims in 2004 were considered, not just those from Churchill.

I chose to look at these three trainers for a couple reasons. First, they start a large number of horses - meaning horseplayers are apt to run across horses that were claimed from them. Secondly, I wanted to see how successful other trainers could be taking off the meet's leaders.

Some believe that it is a poor exercise to claim off leading trainers. The thinking is that they win often because they train and manage their horses well, and provide them with progressive veterinary care.

Others think otherwise, judging from the large numbers of horses claimed off these men. Some believe that a horse can get lost in a big stable, not getting the hands-on attention it needs. Others believe that leading trainers can get caught up in the competition for a training title and may drop horses below their value to win a race.

I first studied the horses claimed off Asmussen, the leading trainer at Churchill and across the country this year. Operating a vast stable stretching from Sunland Park in New Mexico to Saratoga in New York, he had a large number of horses claimed off him, and at a variety of levels.

From the start of the year until this past Tuesday, 111 horses claimed off him in 2004 had come back to race. Of that group, 21 won their first start off the claim, or a little less than 19 percent, and 50 percent hit the board. Yet they underachieved relative to the public's support at the betting windows, returning an average of $1.49 on a $2 bet.

Aside from trainer Cole Norman - Asmussen's main rival at Lone Star and Louisiana Downs - few were able to consistently win after claiming off him. Norman is 8 for 17 with a $2.18 ROI claiming off Asmussen this year, but only two of those eight first-after-claim winners came at higher levels. Most were returned for the same claiming price.

In Kentucky, claimed horses must be stepped up in claiming price by 25 percent or more for a period of 30 days, which understandably makes it more difficult to immediately win. In part for this reason and perhaps because Asmussen keeps his better horses in the spring in Kentucky, very few trainers had immediate success claiming off him at Keeneland or Churchill.

Romans, who started a meet-leading 154 horses during the spring when finishing second in the standings at Churchill, does not have a large number of horses claimed off him relative to his number of runners. Kentucky trainers seem gun-shy about claiming off him, even though some of his main owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, are known for having their claimers aggressively placed.

Of the 24 horses claimed off him this year that have returned to race, six have won (25 percent). A little less than 42 percent finished in the money. Those that ran well did not return enough to make betting them a profitable angle. The average return was $1.40 on a $2 wager.

The most rewarding claims that were taken off Romans came in the winter in Florida. Gimme the Willys, claimed for $8,000 by trainer Francine Faraci-Walder on March 4, is perfect in five starts for her new connections since being converted into a starter allowance horse on turf in the Northeast.

Horses claimed off Amoss returned the most at the betting windows among the three leading trainers, although not well enough to turn a wagering profit. Of the 45 horses claimed off him this year that have come back to run, eight have won (18 percent) and 47 percent have hit the board. Average odds of a little less than 4-1 on the eight winners put the ROI on these runners at $1.76.

A couple scored upsets during the Churchill meet. Life Sayver ($17) was claimed for $10,000 and won for $15,000 10 days later, and Island Saga ($18) won a $25,000 nonwinners-of-two claimer after being claimed from a maiden $15,000 race.

The horses claimed off Amoss, Romans, and Asmussen won at a decent percentage - from 18 to 25 percent. But the low ROI's on the sample runners is one indication that few improved - at least initially.

One race off the claim does not tell the whole story for how successful a claim will be. It is but one race. But for horseplayers, the first race off the claim is of prime importance. So an understanding of a previous trainer's history - be it a leading trainer or a lesser-known one - can provide bettors with clues into a horse's chances when moving on to another stable.