11/10/2005 1:00AM

Best horse in off a layoff? Let price be your guide

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When you are taking a stand against a favorite, sometimes you are going to be just plain wrong. Sometimes the best horse wins despite circumstances perceived as compromising.

It happened last weekend at Santa Anita, and would hardly merit repeating if it was an isolated incident. But it happened twice in two days - two wrong decisions for the same reason. Maybe the logic applied to the Grade 2 Las Palmas Handicap last Saturday and the $100,000 California Cup Distance Handicap on Sunday was flawed to begin with. Or, maybe not.

It is human nature to second-guess decisions, and practical handicappers are no different. If you are not "past-posting" yourself, chances are you will commit the same blunder again and again. Otherwise, the only thing being compromised is your bankroll.

But there is a flip side to sensible handicapping logic, and it will drive you crazy. That is, sometimes you lose when you are right, and sometimes you win even when you are wrong. The challenge is being able to recognize the difference.

Mea Domina was the only Grade 1 turf winner in the Grade 2 Las Palmas on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita. The simple adage "class on grass" might have applied. But the mile race for fillies and mares was her first in five months, and it was not even the race toward which she originally was being pointed. Trainer Ron McAnally planned a Nov. 27 comeback for Mea Domina in the Grade 1 Matriarch at Hollywood Park.

It was only after Hollywood scrapped turf racing for the autumn meet that McAnally changed plans and moved her comeback forward by three weeks. The rationale for wagering against the best filly was concern about her current condition. Mea Domina surely would be vulnerable first time back. Don't you think?

"I was concerned, too," McAnally admitted after the race. He said it was not until her final major work - six furlongs around the cones, rails up - that he felt confident Mea Domina was fit. Of course, the mere fact a trainer is confident in his horse does not mean a horseplayer must agree. Ultimately, all wagering decisions boil down to price. If Mea Domina started at low odds, a bettor could have taken a stand against her on principle.

The problem was, Mea Domina - unquestionably the best filly in the Las Palmas - was let loose at a juicy 3.70-1. Taking a stand against the best horse in the race only makes sense when that horse's odds are below a fair price. In hindsight, Mea Domina started as an overlay. She led gate to wire, and paid a big, fat $9.40.

That was last Saturday. A day later, Moscow Burning was the only graded stakes winner in the $100,000 California Cup Distance Handicap for fillies and mares. It was another example of class on the grass, and more than a few handicappers were still smarting from Mea Domina the previous day.

However, the 1 1/4-mile Distance Handicap was the first start for Moscow Burning in more than six months. Her layoff was caused by a fracture in her pelvis, and trainer Jim Cassidy ran out of time to give her a prep race. Despite handicapping concerns about her current condition, into the Cal Cup she went. Compounding the dilemma, Moscow Burning got hammered to 7-5.

This time, wagering against the best horse in the race made sense. Whether she won or lost, 7-5 was underlay territory for a veteran mare returning from an injury-induced layoff. It didn't matter. Top-class mare that she is, Moscow Burning established an easy lead against allowance-caliber rivals, cruised on slow fractions, and won by three-quarters of a length.

In a span of two days, some handicappers were stung by taking a stand against top-class layoff horses Mea Domina and Moscow Burning. Yet there was a big difference between the two.

Though the logic behind wagering against two "best horses" was similar - potentially dubious current condition returning from an extended layoff - Mea Domina and Moscow Burning were very different in the most crucial factor of all. That is, price.

The $9.40 win payoff on Mea Domina can only be called a missed opportunity. It was a blunder.

The $4.80 win payoff last Sunday on Moscow Burning was nothing more than just plain being wrong. So what?

In handicapping, that is not so bad. Sometimes the best horse simply beats you.

But when win payoffs are $9.40 and $4.80, a sensible handicapper should be able to recognize the difference.