07/06/2009 12:00AM

Clues not found in the PP's

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We are in the heart of the racing season, and among many things we should be seeing fit and ready horses at every level of competition.

Most sharp horses, in fact, will have good recent form or an upwardly mobile form cycle that will include a relatively recent race, plus a series of promising workouts. Some will be dropdowns who hinted at improvement and are getting class relief to find their winning levels. Others will have run strongly enough to convince their connections that a jump up in class is a reasonable move.

While past performances definitely offer the most reliable clues to evaluate horse fitness, there are tell-tale visual signs that can be a powerful asset to an experienced eye.

Frankly, I thought I knew something about judging the way a horse looks in the paddock or on the racetrack, but found I knew virtually nothing until a few legendary horsemen gave me personal lessons that turned my head around.

Leroy Jolley, the Hall of Fame trainer, may have been difficult to approach during the height of his career, but nevertheless shared a few impromptu ideas while I was attempting to watch Seattle Slew prior to the 1977 Kentucky Derby. Jolley was training Blue Grass Stakes winner For the Moment for that Derby and was openly critical of the way Seattle Slew jogged off the Churchill Downs racetrack after a moderate gallop. He chuckled at me as I intently peered through my binoculars as Slew went by.

"What do you think you see kid," he said. "Do you see the flaw? What do you see?"

I told Jolley that I thought that Slew "looked very good," but the experienced horseman pointed out that the future Triple Crown winner was making a large semi-circle with his left front leg, creating a "wing" effect with every stride.

"That will get him beat when the pressure is on," said Jolley.

As it turned out, Seattle Slew's wing was one of the secrets to his exceptional ability to navigate turns so efficiently, a fact that I cautiously raised with Jolley after Seattle Slew caught front-running For the Moment on the final turn in the Derby and went on to win all three Triple Crown races. To his credit, Jolley shared a different perspective, one that became fundamental to my own ability to assess the athletic ability of special horses.

"Top horses can compensate quite a lot for what may seem to be a deficiency," Jolley said. "I've had a few myself and I was flat wrong. After watching that horse reach out so well when he had to, I think he proved he's one of a kind."

The late Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera shared a number of valuable ideas the following year when he masterfully trained Affirmed to the 1978 Triple Crown, the last we have seen to date.

"You can learn a lot watching any horse in the paddock," Barrera said. "Watch the way he carries his head; if he carries it low and the eyes seem half shut, or lacking concentration, he's probably too relaxed to race, or not fit enough to run his best."

Barrera also advised to pay attention to the ears and to watch the reach of a horse's rear legs while merely being walked in circles around the paddock.

If a horse twirls its ears, "like a helicopter," this can betray a lack of focus. If his rear legs fail to reach out to match the imprint made by the front hooves - or if his stride resembled a wide waddle - this choppiness could indicate kidney problems. On the other hand, Barrera stressed the positive clues that can be gleaned from good body color ("like the sheen on a wax-polished car") and from horses who carry themselves smoothly with some definition to the hind quarter muscles.

"That's the horse's engine," Barrera would say. "Got to have a good engine to win races."

During this learning period in my horse playing career, I was lucky enough to meet someone who knew as much about watching and evaluating horse fitness as any one I have ever met: Clem Florio.

Handicapper for the Baltimore News American in the 1970s and later for the Washington Post, Florio was a retired professional boxer and former stablehand for trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, one of the most accomplished horsemen in racing history. Virtually every day in a Maryland press box, Florio conducted informal clinics on what to look for in the post parade and the prerace warm up.

Florio, who passed away last year, was the first to spot the remarkable physical differences in horses that were getting first-time Lasix. "That horse looks brand new, compared to the way he looked last time without Lasix," Florio would say. Sure enough the horse he spotted would improve sharply right before our eyes. This was before drug testing improved to detect minute traces of illegal drugs, ostensibly flushed away by the powerful diuretic effects of Lasix.

Florio also had a keen eye for horses warming up poorly, and it was and remains just as valuable to be able to spot such horses before they take your money down. Among his key points, Florio did not throw out a horse who was slow to get into his best warm-up stride. He watched to see if the horse warmed up out of it, into a more fluid gait. If the horse did not, then he would bet against it.

That said, Florio did like to see a horse break smoothly from his post parade walk into an equally smooth jog, and finally into a gallop that seemed to exude energy and power as the jockey applied only modest restraint. Horses that fought their riders or needed to be kicked or hit excessively with a whip to get them into their warm-up drill were among those Florio looked at suspiciously. Again, he always reserved final judgment until one last look as the field turned towards the starting gate.

"The warm-up is just that," he cautioned. "How many times have you seen a good basketball or football player work out his kinks with a good warm-up? Same thing for horses."

Where many players have been schooled into thinking that kidney sweat (sweat pouring out between the flanks and visible only from behind) is a most negative sign, Florio only saw this as negative when it was "excessive" or was occurring on a cool day, when sweating of any kind would be unusual.

Florio also believed that excessive sweat falling on a horse's shoulders can be overlooked on very hot days when sweating is part of the horse's natural way to cool itself off. Conversely, a lack of sweat on a very hot day runs contrary to the way warm- blooded animals regulate their internal body temperatures. Florio used a boxing analogy to explain this: "When you see a prize fighter enter the first round completely dry, he is not ready to go. He hasn't warmed up enough, or is scared stiff. The best example I ever saw was the way Michael Spinks went into the ring against Mike Tyson. He was done before the fight ever started."

More than once, through the years, Florio reinforced the first basic lesson I learned from Leroy Jolley about watching the racehorse athlete.

"They're individuals," Florio reminded. "What you think you know how the horse should look, or how he is warming up - or not warming up - you have to judge that against the way they actually run. . . . If they run better than you expect, write yourself a note. Put it in your track program or on an index card. Learn to wait for the time when you see something different from the way they looked before a good performance. Throwing out a horse for a negative physical reason is as important as finding one to bet."