11/12/2002 12:00AM

Bounce theory lacks definitive rules

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LAS VEGAS - I want to believe in the bounce. I do believe in the overall concept: that a horse who has over-extended himself in an unusually stressful race could be set up for a poor performance in his next start. I believe this is a proven, sensible handicapping angle. It's only the specific rules and guidelines that I'm not completely clear about.

So I decided to consult the oracle, Len Ragozin. I picked up a copy of Ragozin's "The Odds Must Be Crazy" - half autobiography (skipped that part), half handicapping study (much better than I expected). If you're looking for dogma, you'll be disappointed with Ragozin's comments about the bounce. Instead of laying out rules and commandments, he offers only a litany of hedges, warnings, qualifications, and complications. Instead of certainties, he offers us "likelihoods" - by the truckload:

* The bigger the jump up to a peak performance, the more likely a horse will bounce.

* Front-runners are more likely to bounce than closers.

* Sprinters are more likely to bounce than routers.

* Older horses are more likely to bounce than younger ones.

* Fillies and mares are more likely to bounce than colts and geldings.

* Horses trained by top trainers are less likely to bounce.

* Classier horses are less likely to bounce than cheap claimers or maiden claimers.

* Dirt horses are more likely to bounce than turf horses.

* Horses with histories of physical unsoundness are more likely to bounce than more sound horses.

* Horses who have run more frequently in recent weeks and months are more likely to bounce.

* Horses with more lifetime races are more likely to bounce.

* The more recent the peak performance, the more likely the bounce.

There's nothing simple or certain about the bounce, we are told - as that long list of likelihoods makes quite clear. There are no guarantees - only percentages and probabilities and the search for value.

Perhaps most significantly, Ragozin recognizes that it is not only important to decide that a horse will bounce, but also how badly he will bounce.

Ragozin is equally careful and cautious on this subject.

"There is no uniform answer," he writes, "to the question, How badly do you expect a given horse to bounce? A horse might go backward only a point or two, or it might fall off the charts, depending upon how badly that big race affected him."

The most specific advice he gives is that the biggest bounce will usually come from a horse whose recent figure is "out of whack" with his previous form. All in all, he concludes, the size of bounces and explosions is "really not predictable." All you can say for sure is that a horse is more likely to bounce, or less likely to bounce, according to the laundry list of criteria outlined above.

Now, before we allow the oracle to qualify and modify his theory into complete uselessness, I would argue strongly for its fundamental value, indeed its absolute necessity in getting value at the windows. A quick look at one recent day's races (Nov. 8) should make this clear:

* Right Too Refuse. Aqueduct, race 1. This colt had improved dramatically from Beyers of 35 to 67 to an 87 in his most recent race, with a tough head-and-head battle through the stretch. It was a new, hard-earned lifetime best. He bounced badly down to a 69.

* Jet Flight. Calder, race 6. This 2-year-old colt had last run an all-out effort at seven furlongs, dueling for the lead every step of the way to earn a clear lifetime-best figure of 58. And that was on first-time Lasix. Now, he was returning to the races in only eight days. He was the odds-on favorite. He didn't run badly, but he could only manage a well-beaten second-place finish, his Beyer dropping to 48 on the stretch-out to one mile.

* Tom's Thunder. Aqueduct, race 7. He had just put together back-to-back big Beyers of 101 and 102. He finished fourth behind Say Florida Sandy and earned a Beyer of only 92.

* Happy Arc. Calder, race 1. After a seven-week layoff, he had earned a big 85 Beyer with a wire-to-wire score. He bounced horribly to a 56, finishing 19 3/4 lengths behind. Some would say this was not a true bounce, since the running line of his previous race did not appear to be particularly stressful. Perhaps. Suffice it to say that the big figure run after a long layoff, and the presence of other speed on Nov. 8, did him in.

* Spite the Devil and Go Rockin' Robin. Aqueduct, race 3. Spite the Devil had improved his Beyers from 67 to 83 to 89, with a stressful performance in his last race. He was 3-5 on the board. He did manage to win, but only after a serious struggle. His Beyer dropped substantially to a 79. Go Rockin' Robin had a similar improving Beyer pattern, although his last race did not appear nearly as draining, at least not trip-wise. Still, he bounced from an 83 to a 68.

* Rich Flight. Calder, race 9. This one gets a bit more complicated. Rich Flight looked like a potential bounce. His Beyers had risen from 64 to 79 to an extremely stressful 83 in his last start. But in the race on Nov. 8 he was the absolute lone speed. Under such ideal circumstances, without much pressure, he might still be able to run close to his previous best.

At odds of 4-5, I certainly thought about betting against him. But trying to beat such lone front-runners can be hazardous to your financial health. Sure enough, Rich Flight set leisurely, unaccompanied fractions and won convincingly. His Beyer dropped only slightly to an 80. If there had been other speeds in that race, Rich Flight would have made a juicy target to bet against.

So I'm still a believer in the bounce, despite the many complications and disappointments of it. But don't just take it from me. You have the word of the oracle himself on it. At least the very tentative word.