12/18/2003 12:00AM

Benefit from key-race training races

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Times have changed for handicappers betting horses exiting races that have produced multiple next-out winners. With information having become more accessible on these key races, value on the angle has diminished.

If a horse finished second to a next-out winner, the name of the winner is italicized in the company lines of the past performances. Runners-up and third-place finishers also appear in italics when they win next out.

To get value with a key race, a supporter of this angle hopes that the also-rans are the first horses to be successful. That way the information remains hidden from the general public, because company lines in past performances list only the top-three finishers.

Although I do not blindly support horses coming out of key races, I do believe the concept that certain races are superior to others. Although time can be used as a measure for a race's quality, the truest barometer of the strength of a race is the horses themselves and their productivity.

Key-race handicappers searching for value might want to keep track of the results of training races at Fair Grounds. All first-time starters there are required to have a training race, a five-furlong practice race with horses of similar age and sex, before starting in an official race.

Usually there are about four or five of these per week, and as with "real" races, some training races are better than others. One might have a field with several well-bred colts; another race might be filled more with Louisiana-breds.

It is on this disparity that class handicappers can attempt to capitalize. By keeping track of the subsequent performances of these training-race horses, it is easier to spot first-timers with the potential to win their debuts and those that have little chance.

The data is easy to find. Fair Grounds keeps track of all training race results on its website, along with comments from the clocker (www.fgno.com). Video of the races is also available on the site, although when I viewed it with a high-speed connection, the footage was too choppy to watch closely.

By printing out the results and marking how these horses fare in their debuts, a handicapper can develop a chart similar to those used by key-race chart players. Even if a training race does not produce multiple winners, the results can shed light on the quality of a training race and where a horse might fit.

Consider the training races from Dec. 3. The horses exiting those races have recently begun to show up in the entries.

One of the few that has run back, Forest Dancer, finished third in a maiden $15,000 claiming race after running fourth in the first training race Dec. 3.

On Saturday at Fair Grounds in the last race, the second-place finisher from that same training race, Under Fire, is entered in a maiden $30,000 claiming race. A daughter of Gulch, she has a pedigree typical of a filly debuting in a maiden special weight, not a maiden claimer. But we know that she was only four lengths superior (time difference of .80 of a second) to Forest Dancer when second in her five-furlong training race, and Forest Dancer was third in a "real" race for maiden $15,000. By opting to run her for a tag instead of a maiden special weight, trainer Neil Howard appears to have her in a spot that suits her ability.

That may not always be the case with first-time starters. The winner of the last training race on Dec. 3, Bold Minister, came back and was a dead-heat winner of a Louisiana-bred maiden special weight contest Dec. 12, earning a 60 Beyer Speed Figure. The third-place finisher, Keenan, finished ninth in that same race.

Based on their seemingly ordinary quality, that does not bode well for the chances of Chivalric, the fifth-place finisher from that training race, if he debuts in an open maiden special weight. Being a son of A.P. Indy, Chivalric will be bet on the basis of his pedigree, even following a weak training race.

Other factors to consider

One caution about following training races - people are always looking for the next superstar. There are rarely such gems to be found.

Training races are but one thing to consider when a horse debuts, much like his pedigree, his works, his trainer. They are the equivalent of NFL preseason football games. They mean something, but they mean far from everything. They should always be viewed in relation to the trainer's history with first timers.

Some trainers, for example, run their horses at less than 100 percent in a training race. Then, in the weeks that follow, they bring the horse up to peak fitness by breezing him three or four more times. These horses are more likely to improve upon their training races than those running a week or two later, who were already close to fully prepared when they ran the training race.