01/08/2004 12:00AM

Bottom line: Don't bet horses off long layoffs

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One of the challenges of handicapping the Gulfstream Park meet is determining the relative chances of the many comebacking horses that fill the card.

A few weeks ago, with Gulfstream fast approaching, I decided that an analysis of layoff horses would be well served in preparation for a meet in which many horses begin their season. Most angles for playing layoff horses are well known, such as checking works, trainer statistics, and the past record of a horse following time off. I chose to examine layoffs from a different perspective, by determining if the gender of a horse played a role in the horse's ability to win after time away from the races.

For years horseplayers have heard trainers remark that fillies do not need as much training to get in condition. Lightly framed fillies can often be jogged or ponied into races once they are fit.

A big, powerful colt, on the other hand, must be drilled to get into shape, or he will not lose the weight necessary to race at his peak - or so the thinking goes.

Following that rationale, I thought it would be interesting to see if fillies and mares, more than colts and geldings, might be more successful after layoffs, because, in the view of horsemen, they required less work to get into shape.

To find out the results, I had the Daily Racing Form past performance database tally the results of nearly the last two years of racing, and determine how males and females performed when active and inactive. The accompanying chart lists the results and return on investment, relative to the number of days the sampled horses had between races.

Horseplayers should not expect to see any mouth-watering figures. This study sampled nothing more than time between races, and on that fact alone, it was impossible for any one group to be profitable.

The point of the study was not to determine that one could profitably play horses on 30 days' rest, for example. The idea was to see in a general sense which groups hold an advantage.

Aside from the sheer quantity of the studied starters - a total of more than 750,000 - most of the numbers do not jump off the page. The most telling figures are the $2 ROI numbers and the impact values, which are numerical comparisons of the percentage of winners relative to the percentage of starters. The IV's illustrate unmistakably that all layoff horses, irrespective of their sex, are at a significant disadvantage.

As for the idea that fillies might fare better off long layoffs because they need less training - the theory has no validity. The lowest ROI of all the sample horses ($1.13) came on fillies returning from layoffs of 180 days or more. Not that males excelled in this category; male horses following breaks of that length returned $1.36.

What I found interesting, however, was that there was little difference in the ROI's of the studied horses that returned on less than 60 days' rest. Even horses running on 45-59 days' rest - who would be considered to be returning from layoffs - did not perform significantly worse than did those with more current activity.

Females had slightly more favorable impact values when given 21-44 days between races, compared to less time, perhaps an indication that they recover less quickly than male horses. But that did not mean they ran well when given three months or more off.

The higher ROI's of both males and females that race on 10 or fewer days' rest is worth noting. That is likely due to many bettors being reluctant to support quick returning horses, reasoning that they have to be much the best to win following so short a recovery period.

The fact is, these horses win virtually as often as those with more time between races, and higher odds on these horses make them the most profitable of the sampled runners.