07/19/2007 12:00AM

Cashing in on trainer trends


A total of 280 trainers started at least one horse at Saratoga in 2006. Most (171) didn't win a single race, and fewer than 10 percent (24) won five or more races. Those percentages are roughly the same season after season, so the practical upshot for handicappers is to stick with proven conditioners who are experienced winners at this ultra-competitive resort meet. Of course, typical fields of maiden, allowance, and stakes races tend to be filled with horses saddled by household names. How often have you heard someone exclaim after a race, "How could they let [fill in the name] go off at such a big price?"

Indeed, results usually make sense in hindsight. The trick is having the foresight to sense when a situation is positive, negative, or somewhere in the vast gray area in between. The following thumbnail sketches of trainers -- some highly prominent, some lower in profile -- may provide clues in those impossible-looking races where everyone seems to have a chance.

Steve Asmussen

Saddled a record 555 winners in 2004, but was slowed somewhat the following year by the outbreak of strangles in Kentucky, and last year was in the midst of a suspension as the Saratoga string ran for assistant Scott Blasi (10 wins). Comes off a record-breaking meet at Churchill Downs, where he sent out 45 winners and won more than half the 2-year-old races he had starters in, including a sweep of the Bashford Manor and the Debutante on closing weekend with Kodiak Kowboy and Rated Fiesty. Considering he has started well more than 2,000 horses since the start of 2006, he maintains exceptionally high win percentages in a wide range of statistical categories, most notably with the 2-year-olds (29 percent) and turf to dirt (32 percent). Not as effective on turf, particularly first-time turf.

Patrick Biancone

His status has been clouded by an ongoing investigation for alleged possession of cobra venom in Kentucky, which didn't stop him from sending Lady of Venice out to Hollywood Park to win the Grade 2 CashCall Mile at 5-1 on July 6. Since moving his stable to the United States in 2000, his Saratoga stakes winners include the 2-year-olds Whywhywhy, Sense of Style, and Henny Hughes, in addition to Mayakovsky, a maiden winner in track-record time. Overall, however, his 2-year-olds have been overbet the past two years (11 percent winners, $0.56 return on investment), and he has been more effective with older turf routers. Horses coming off layoffs of any duration win upward of 30 percent.

Tom Bush

Perennially among the leaders in terms of New York-bred races won. Horses coming off short layoffs (31-60 days) have done quite well, winning at 23 percent with a $2.08 ROI since the start of 2006, but horses coming off medium-range (61-180 days) and long (180-plus days) layoffs were a combined 0 for 41. Blinkers on (1 for 24) can usually be interpreted as a last resort. Among trainers with at least five winners at last year's meet, he topped all with a sparkling 30.4 win percentage from a 7-4-2 record with 23 starters.

Christophe Clement

Had a typically solid 2006 meet at 9-7-6 from 40 starters, including 2-year-old first-time starter Admiral Bird in a turf route. Overall, though, his 8-for-73 record with first-time starters since the start of 2006 ranks as his lowest category in terms of win percentage. Regarded as a turf trainer, but his win rate on dirt is virtually the same. Strengths include European imports, medium and long layoffs, and first-time Lasix.

Gary Contessa

His stable has grown to the point where he sent out 151 winners in New York last year, coming close to the record of 156 set in 1974 by Frank Martin (whom he worked for from 1980-85). But after winning nine races at Saratoga in 2000, he is 19 for 322 the past six years, including a tough-luck meet in 2006 at 8-17-15

from 105 starters. He's normally associated with claimers and New York-breds, but the overall quality of his stock has improved. His ROI is break-even from 153 stakes starters since start of 2006. From a large sample (314 starters) either first start off the claim or first start after being acquired privately, his ROI totals are well into the black. Wet-track runners fare exceptionally well.

Richard Dutrow Jr.

New York's leading trainer three of the last six years. He won 13 races at the 2005 meet, and did nearly as well last year with 12 wins -- good for second in the standings. Considering he has had more than 1,000 starters since the start of 2006, it's fairly amazing he has maintained win percentages of 25 percent or better in 18 stat categories. Most notable are 40 percent first-time Lasix, 32 percent first time off the claim, and 30 percent with a large sample (148) of privately acquired horses first time off the trainer change. He is underrated with first-time starters, which have won at a steady clip regardless of parimutuel support.

Bobby Frankel

Won with 15 of 43 starters at the meet in 2004, good for a $2 flat-bet profit of $18.60, but his totals have since dwindled, to 10 for 44 in 2005, and 7 for 42 last summer. Horses making their first and second starts back from long layoffs win at 25 percent with profitable ROI totals; they usually show a series of regularly spaced workouts. First-time turf runners ($2.78) do well, as anyone who caught Brilliant Cut ($24.20) on opening day last year will happily confirm. Dirt to turf (30 percent, $3.33) is his strongest category the past 18 months. Juveniles (12 percent, $1.10) tend to be overbet.

Neil Howard

Pretty much a non-factor last year, with

2 wins from only 12 starters, as his blue-blooded stable usually points for the fall meets in Kentucky, but he did win the 2005 Personal Ensign with $31 upsetter Shadow Cast for main owner Will Farish. Avoid his 2-year-olds (7 percent, $0.50) and first-time starters (7 percent, $1.08) like the plague. Strengths include wet tracks, first-time turf ($3.51), turf to dirt ($4.03), and second start back from medium and long layoffs.

Mike Hushion

Had his usual solid Saratoga in 2006 with a

7-8-5 mark from 35 starters. He plays the claiming game as well as anybody (34 percent first off claim, $3.39). Formerly a toss in turf races, he has greatly improved in that area (emphatically so at Belmont this spring and summer, where he had the second best win percentage through July 4), with an ROI ($3.48) nearly twice as high as on dirt ($1.86). Former assistant to Allen Jerkens routinely equips horses with front bandages; dirt horses usually wear mud calks.

Allen Jerkens

Hall of Famer upset the mighty Kelso in the 1962 Suburban Handicap with Beau Purple, and 35 years later won the 2007 Suburban with Political Force. Had a subpar 2005 meet at 3-9-3 from 40 starts, and improved marginally last year to 5-6-4 from 45 starters, highlighted by Swap Fliparoo's ($13.80) last-to-first score in the Grade 1 Test Stakes. Best results the past 18 months have been with maiden special weight dropdowns to the claiming ranks (30 percent, $4.35) and first-time Lasix (37 percent, $3.67).

Jimmy Jerkens

Allen's son was having a very good Belmont meet, with 10 wins from 33 starters through July 15, including Corinthian's upset of the Met Mile. To show how this is a game of peaks and valleys, he had 21 wins from 64 Spa starters in 2003-05, including an 11-for-28 mark in 2005, but suffered through a 1-1-4 record with 21 starters last year. Catch his layoff runners second time back. Second-time starters (41 percent, $3.49) routinely improve off their debut effort.

John Kimmel

Has won seven races and posted a flat-bet profit each of the last two years, and put the exclamation point on 2006 when Premium Tap ($64) lit up the toteboard in the Woodward Stakes. He is equally effective on dirt and turf, and with sprinters and routers; especially deadly with maidens dropping in for a tag the first time. Avoid his first-time starters (1 for 36 the past 18 months).

Bruce Levine

Won with just 4 of 82 meet starters from 2000-02, but has greatly improved on those numbers. How's this for consistency: fourth-leading trainer in New York with 84 wins in 2005, and fourth again with 85 wins last year. He is extremely dangerous first start off the claim (33 percent, $2.48) and second start off the claim (29 percent, $2.26). Concentrates primarily on dirt (25 percent wins from 762 starters on dirt versus 12 percent wins from 59 starters on turf). Pay particular attention when his horses switch from turf to dirt (38 percent, $3.01).

Shug McGaughey

By and large one of the most overplayed trainers on the circuit, especially with first-time starters (1 for 41) and sprinters (10 percent, $0.63) since the start of 2006 -- probably because barn's philosophy stresses finishing ability above all. Biggest strength continues to be long layoffs (27 percent, $2.57).

Kiaran McLaughlin

Invasor is retired, but he has got up-and-comers Flashy Bull eyeing the Whitney and Makderah pointing to the Diana. Of the dozen or so trainers who regularly ply their trade in the sport's marquee events, he continues to produce exceptional value across the board: Trainer Form lists 38 categories, and he has profitable ROIs in 23 of them, including nine at $3 or higher. His second-time starters are among the most reliable improvers in the game (34 percent, $4.28) often by leaps and bounds. Surface and distance changes also catch bettors off guard on a regular basis.

H. Graham Motion

Fair Hill-based trainer has shown flat-bet profits at Saratoga since 2003, thanks to ship-in winners on the grass like T.D. Vance (16-1) in the 2005 Hall of Fame, and the ageless Better Talk Now (7-1) in the 2004 Sword Dancer. Despite a win by Longley ($19.20) in an off-the-turf baby sprint last year, his first-time starters (11 percent, $1.05) are best passed over in favor of second-timers (19 percent, $2.63). He is equally effective on dirt or turf in terms of win percentage, but gets better prices on turf. Sprint to route (21 percent, $3.12) is a positive, but route to sprint (5 percent, $0.25) is a big negative. Blinker changes (on: 26 percent, $1.90; off: 50 percent, $4.73) rate a long look.

Bill Mott

Among the more overplayed trainers, but better with first-time starters than generally perceived, as anyone who caught Got the Last Laugh ($17.40) last summer will tell you. As always, his long layoff horses (27 percent, $2.04) are likely to fire first time back. His win percentages on dirt and turf and in sprints and routes all fall into the 18 percent to 20 percent range. Strongest recent stat is synthetic track to turf (5 for 11, $2.67), so it might pay to look for a Mott-trained horse on the grass that hasn't been out since running on Keeneland's Polytrack in April.

Todd Pletcher

Won fifth straight Spa title (and sixth overall) last year, doubling up nearest pursuer Rick Dutrow (24 to 12). Of course, he started more than twice as many horses as Dutrow (116 versus 57), so he lost 92 races. In other words, don't be afraid to take a stand against his runners when they are overbet. His only winning 2-year-old first-time starter on dirt last year was Panty Raid ($10), who had been purchased at Keeneland's juvenile sale in April for $275,000. The Pletcher-trained juveniles to watch first out were on the turf: Twilight Meteor ($6.70), Brushed Gold ($11.20), Tremendous One ($5.30), Storm Dixie ($6.10), and Ochre ($6.30) all won at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. He was in the midst of a strong early-season push with the babies at Belmont, with seven wins through July 8, including a sweep of the Astoria and Tremont on July 1 with Glacken's Gal ($7.90) and Ready's Image ($3.90). Since the start of 2006, his ROI with 1,052 dirt starters is $1.70; with 604 turf starters it is $1.68.

Barclay Tagg

His first-time starters regularly get the job done (20 percent, $2.79), including a couple of promising 2-year-olds unveiled recently at Belmont: the filly According to Plan and colt Take of Ekati. Second-timers are equally live (25 percent, $2.65). Has the good 3-year-old Nobiz Like Shobiz set to make an impact during the second half of the year after a solid comeback effort finishing second in the Dwyer. His ROI is an identical $2.04 dirt and turf, but routers (23 percent, $2.33) have done better than sprinters (17 percent, $1.46); best of all is sprint to route (23 percent, $3.74).

Rick Violette Jr.

He is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career, with Summer Doldrums winning the Colonial Turf Cup, High Finance winning the Tom Fool, and Dream Rush taking the Prioress. That's in addition to the exciting

2-year-olds Fed Watcher and Phantom Income, debut winners in sharp time at Belmont. He won juvenile races at Saratoga last year with Cool the Economy ($14), Graeme Central ($6), Wynsome Wesley ($6), and Market Psychology ($4.90), all with Garrett Gomez aboard. He has won 19 percent of the time with 290 sprinters and 276 routers since the start of 2006.

Nick Zito

The poster boy for why it is important for handicappers to monitor change. His first-time starters used to be automatic throw-outs (except when Marylou Whitney-owned horses like Birdstone were unveiled on Whitney Day), but last year he did a total about-face with six first-out winners: Irish Ace ($15.60), C P West ($8.20), Ruby Crown ($7.80), Boogie Boggs ($24.80), Debbie Got Even ($13.80), and Successful Ways ($12.80). Four of the six were coming off a workout from the gate. Overall, his first-time starters have won at 17 percent, with a $2.25 ROI the past 18-plus months. His $5.14 ROI with second-time starters (18 percent) is skewed by a 95-1 winner at Gulfstream Park earlier this year. Turf horses (0 for 32) and dirt to turf (1 for 36, $0.46) are easy eliminations, but give his mud-calked horses extra credit on wet tracks (31 percent, $3.01).