09/25/2007 12:00AM

Avoiding costly mistakes

EmailAs a follow-up to last week’s column – on unappreciated aspects of handicapping – here are a few ideas that go beyond past performance comparisons that may help sort out some common but ambiguous situations.

* When is a drop-down really a step up in class?

Answer: When the claiming price does not reflect the quality of competition.

Consider the illusion of a horse dropping in claiming price from $35,000 to $20,000, where the higher-priced claimer was for nonwinners of two or three races lifetime and the $20,000 claimer is for unrestricted multiple winners.

Claiming races with multiple winners usually include hard-hitting veterans, including some with “back class,” while claiming races limited to nonwinners of two or three races usually include proven losers and perhaps one or two recent maiden claiming graduates. Obviously the $35,000 claimer in this case is a lower-quality race.

* When will a seemingly obvious step up in class actually provide class relief?

Answer: When a horse who has been running against multiple winners “steps up” in class to a higher-priced claiming race for limited winners. In other words, the opposite of what is described above.

But also, the illusion of a step up to the next level can be found when the next level up does not include a horse who was nearly as talented as a horse who was tough to handle in the most recent race at the lower level.

Consider the case of a horse who outgamed a rival in a maiden race and the runner-up goes on to win a maiden race and then adds a solid performance in an allowance race or stakes. Because the maiden winner you are looking at already has defeated a high-quality opponent, it is quite likely he will be facing easier in today’s allowance race against other maiden winners and some that may have lost a few races at this “higher” level.

When players take note of horses who performed exceptionally well in hotly contested races or pay attention to key races, there will be many instances when the raise in class will prove to be an illusion.

* When is it wise to stay away from cold trainers who otherwise have excellent records? And when do you throw out the cold recent statistics and resume accepting the trainer’s horses at face value.

Answer: There are those who disagree, but I have saved lots of money downgrading horses in the care of cold trainers when they are performing significantly below customary win percentages at a meet. The same has been true for trainers who have been failing to deliver sharp contenders in those special race situations he or she normally dominates. Moreover, I have found it quite profitable to play against such trainers when the crowd is sending their money in as if he or she has not skipped a beat.

For example, during the recent Saratoga meet, three-time Eclipse Award winning trainer Todd Pletcher endured a mystifying subpar run that lasted for more than three weeks. Instead of winning races in bunches, instead of scoring with his army of expensively bred 2-year-old maidens, Pletcher lost race after race as if he were an obscure 5 percent trainer. While most horseplayers expected Pletcher to come out of this slump as fast as it began, there was money to be made playing against Pletcher after the first week of his slump until he demonstrated a return to winning form.

Players also should pause when a known illness is sweeping the barn, or when other issues come to light that logically may affect the trainer’s concentration.

A few years ago, Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel went ice-cold after his horses were placed under extra supervision on the Saratoga backstretch. The change in routine – reported in the national and local press – seemed to affect Frankel’s barn for the rest of the Saratoga meet, yet his horses continued to attract their customary wagering support.

That was not the first time that a high-profile trainer went through a succession of defeats at low odds.

This summer, Bruce Headley went through a horrendous streak of nearly four dozen straight defeats on synthetic tracks before he seemed to make adjustments in his workout program. The changes paid off with three victories during the final week at Del Mar. After win No. 2 it was time to throw out the cold-streak statistics and evaluate Headley’s horses without any such burden.

* When is it wise to play a frequent bridesmaid to win?

Answer: Rarely, if ever.

Frequent second- or third-place finishers tend to lose focus when challenged late, or seem to think the race is over when they get a brief lead in the stretch. They also tend to go off at low odds because of their multiple in-the-money finishes. This creates minimal value in the win pool, while simultaneously helping to inflate the payoff prices of other contenders in the field who may not have run out of excuses.

There are a few exceptions, however.

When a frequent bridesmaid gets a positive trainer change, or is switching racing surfaces or distances to conform to a breeding strength or the statistical strength of a new trainer, such a horse may overcome his losing habit. At that moment however, it is wise to demand some value before you get on board for a minor reversal of fortune. No advantage can be gained anticipating major improvement when the rest of the betting public is jamming their money in the win pool as if the change is guaranteed to produce the elusive victory,

Also, there is no law against betting bridesmaids to do what they do best: Finish second or third.

Fact is, many of this type are natural-born exacta, trifecta, and superfecta partners. Some will even spike up the payoffs well beyond expectations when they bring their habit with them as they step up in class.

Another intriguing aspect of the bridesmaid phenomenon is linked to what can occur after they break through their long string of losses with a sudden victory.

Such horses are reasonable candidates for a repeat score, providing a significant change accompanied the victory. This may include any of the usual changes that may lead to an improved performance, including changes in equipment, medication, racing surfaces, distances, trainers, or jockeys. When their recent victory is reinforced by the presence of fit, above-average rivals, the move up in class by the former bridesmaid may resemble the class-rise illusion previously mentioned.