11/18/2008 1:00AM

Cashing in on a hot hand

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Playing the horses may be serious business, but every once in a while I like to go off the beaten path to fool around on the fringes of the game.

Sometimes this takes the form of playing only the horses I think will get to the front out of the starting gate; or perhaps I will go in the opposite direction and pick horses I think will have the least impact in every race on the card. In both of those cases, I often find that those seemingly silly exercises can bring me back to basic fundamentals and help me regain some equilibrium after several bad handicapping mistakes.

On other occasions, when I feel capricious, I may play around with seemingly inane handicapping systems. While I do not hold out much hope for any system to produce a long-term profit, there can be valuable insights gained by putting them to the test.

For instance, one of the first systems I mucked around with while still in college utilized the second and third choices in both ends of the daily double. In those days, the daily double was the only "exotic wager" on the eight- or nine-race menu at tracks from coast to coast. Much to my surprise, just eliminating the morning-line favorite in these two early races turned out to be marginally profitable for more than a year, a circumstance that repeated itself when I brought the system out of mothballs while based in Minneapolis in the 1980s.

The basic reason for such decent results probably was linked to the fact that many players tend to overbet morning-line choices in the daily double, just as they do today in pick threes, pick fours, and pick sixes.

This time around, I am not so confident of the results, but I thought I would share a very easy system that newcomers to Daily Racing Form might find easy to implement as well as give more experienced players something to think about based on one unusual aspect of the results.

The system focuses on the DRF's selection box for each track. It is designed to take advantage of a handicapper who seems to be on target, a handicapper who apparently has a good insight into the way races are being run and is giving hints through his early selections that he may be worth following for the rest of the day.

Steve D's DRF Selector System:

Rule 1: Check each handicapper in the DRF consensus box for a given track and identify any who has picked two winners among their top choices in the first three races, or three winners out of the first five races. The consensus itself can be included in this survey.

Rule 2: For any of the "winning handicappers" who qualify by rule number one, commit a play on that handicapper's best bet if it has not yet been run and commit a play on that handicapper's remaining top selections after his third winner on the card.

Frankly I was surprised how the results of this system panned out.

In the first place when a public handicapper in DRF failed to pick a winner in two of the first three races, or three out of the first five, the vast majority went blank for the rest of the day or picked only one winner for an overall net loss on their daily selections.

Those handicappers who started out with a solid array of winning plays as per rule number one, showed a relatively high 40 percent win ratio over the sample two week period at 10 different tracks with their best bets later on the card. Those who picked a third winner on the card, picked an additional winner from an average three races yet to be run.

As examples, here were the results of an ordinary racing day, Thursday, Nov. 13, at Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Hawthorne, Aqueduct, the Meadowlands, Remington Park, Churchill Downs, Penn National, Laurel Park, and Charles Town.

Hollywood Park: DRF handicapper Michael Hammersly picked the first two winners and won his best bet in the fifth, Streetscape, at $4.40. This also lined him up for more plays and an $8 winner in the eighth and final race. One other DRF handicapper at Hollywood that day also picked the first two race winners, but his best bet in the sixth race, Winningdancer, lost.

Golden Gate Fields: Handicapper Kenny Peck picked two of the first three race winners and three out of the first five. His best bet, Secret Light, won the last race and paid $5.80.

Hawthorne: Handicapper Marcus Hersh picked the first two on the card but his best bet in the third, Jet Power, lost and there were no other winners on the card.

Aqueduct: No handicapper picked the first two of three, or three out of five. In fact, it was a tough day for the published handicappers all around as hinted at by the early unproductive results. A good day, in fact, to go longshot hunting once the pattern was established.

The Meadowlands: Kenny Peck picked his third winner in the sixth race and came back with a fourth winning pick with Life's a Purse, at $4.40 in the eighth and final. Byron King picked his third winner in the fifth and came back with Fortunate Slew, an $8.60 winner in the seventh. The DRF Consensus selections replicated King's positive results to complete a good day for the DRF handicappers.

Remington Park: No qualifying handicappers and no system plays on a mediocre day for all, although two handicappers did have a pair of winners on the program and one had a third. All four had the final race winner, Strategic Leader at $4.40, the consensus best bet.

Churchill Downs: No handicapper qualified for play on the day and there were very few winners picked by the published handicappers on the card. As seen at Aqueduct, this was an interesting indication that longshots would dominate the results.

Penn National: The consensus picked the first two winners and four of the first five before also winning the eighth race with Tiger Dancer at $4.40. Two other handicappers picked three out of the first five and also caught Tiger Dancer in the eighth. No best bet won, however, which neutralized the overall good results.

Laurel Park: The consensus picked two of the first three after scratches and three of the first five. The best bet was one of the scratches, but consensus came back with winners in the last two races: Gnome's Delight at $4.20 and Fisher at $5.20.

Charles Town: Handicapper Joe DeVivo picked two of the first three and three of the first five and then went on to pick the sixth race winner, Secret Field, at $4.40 and Turkos Keepsake in the ninth and final at $7.60. DeVivo's best bet in the eighth ran second. No other handicapper qualified.

A few observations:

* Payoff prices for horses that attract interest from popular DRF handicappers generally will be relatively low, averaging for instance on the above day, $5.70 per winner. That, however, is higher than the payoff for the average winning favorite. Moreover, with 13 winners from 40 total qualified plays, the net loss was a mere $5.60, well below the net average loss from the parimutual takeout. Similar results were obtained over the two-week testing period at these and other tracks.

* Beyond the dollars and cents of the exercise, it was most interesting to see the dynamic relationship between unsuccessful early picks and the increased tempo of longshot winners on the last five or six races on most of the racing cards. As pointed out in the track-by-track summary, when experienced DRF handicappers are unable to pick a few early winners, there is reason to believe there will be other upsets later in the day. That may not send players rushing to play this system, but it should suggest a deeper peek into DRF past performances to catch a few anticipated bombs.