02/16/2010 12:00AM

Devil is in the details

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Over the years I have flipped baseball cards, thrown dice against a wall, played checkers, chess, backgammon, bridge, poker, blackjack and some other gambling games that were designed on the spot. But ever since my college days at Rutgers in the 1960s, I have firmly believed that horse racing - specifically horse race handicapping - is the greatest game man has ever invented.

No other gambling game involves as many factors and no other game is ever-changing, ever-evolving and requires new tools to understand its complexities. Yet, this intellectually challenging game also is rooted in repetitious fundamental issues that have existed throughout racing history.

How fast is the horse? What is his best distance? How good is the jockey? What is the likely pace dynamic? Does the trainer excel or usually fail with this type of runner? Which horses in this race are moving forward in their physical condition? Which ones may be regressing? Are fair odds being offered?

Contemporary handicappers are treated to incredible access to highly detailed DRF past performances and to result charts. We have hundreds of televised races and thousands of Internet-based replays, along with reams of trainer-jockey stats and a fair amount of handicapping expertise from trackside observers, published handicappers and, yes, even books on the subject. But all of this cannot be translated into a winning season unless the horseplayer is able to spot horses who have run better or worse than most others perceive through standard forms of measurement.

Without a good eye for the unusual, or some privately developed handicapping insights, most horseplayers merely will follow the crowd with their bets, often at low odds. To illustrate why this is so important, consider the following two situations that will challenge your handicapping acumen.

* When a recent winner is entered in a race with the top Beyer Speed Figure, do you have any realistic grounds to throw him out? If so, what might tip you off to a performance that will not live up to the previous good effort?

* When a horse finished last in his most recent outing, what might lead you to believe that this same horse should win today's race for fun? Again, what tools or ideas do you employ to discount the poor finish? What do you look for to indicate a much different effort today?

In these two divergent circumstances, sometimes found in the same race, the player has to realize that a good race or a poor one is not nearly as important as secondary factors that contributed to what occurred. Maybe the high Beyer Figure earned by the last-out winner was a product of a perfect stalk-and-go trip from third to first behind dueling leaders. If so, why would you expect a similar result if the pace dynamics are completely different today?

If the last-place finisher was used up in a speed duel and today there is much less early speed, this same horse might be much tougher to catch. In many cases, this horse might even be a wonderful bet, probably at generous odds.

While the above two explanations are relatively easy for most players to identify, long-term success at the track depends upon your ability to pose and answer a wide range of similar questions. Past-performance profiles definitely contain clues to a horse's relative abilities, but horses are not robots, and every different race poses sufficient changes in what we may expect.

Is the distance right for the second-time starter who faded in a shorter race last time? Perhaps the trainer is Todd Pletcher, who can win with first-time starters, often at deflated prices, but more importantly is an absolute master at getting a horse to reach a much higher peak in his second outing with almost no other past performance clues. Maybe blinkers or first-time Lasix will be a telltale sign for a different trainer. Maybe the horse you are considering now is going to be ridden by a stable's "go-to rider," someone this trainer uses when he believes a top effort is forthcoming.

Perhaps the breeding line suggests a lightly raced horse will be better suited to today's two-turn race at one mile even though the horse did not show much in a sprint debut. Maybe a sign of early speed in that first outing at six furlongs will be an extremely positive sign for today's route race, because this trainer does not usually ask for speed from his debut runners. Maybe a slow half-mile workout in 50 seconds should alert you to a potentially big effort for a 7-year-old $5,000 claiming gelding at Penn National, because the old-timer rarely has an officially timed work unless he is feeling his oats.

If you really want to win at this game you have to ask your own good questions about the X's and O's offered to you in every race's past performances.

At Santa Anita Park, for example, we see many horses turn back from a speed try at 1 1/16 miles on the turf course to become much stronger threats on the downhill 6 1/2-furlong turf course. So do we upgrade every such horse making this move? Or do we look for a sign that the trainer purposefully put the horse in the longer race just so he could get him ready for this shorter contest? If you want to see a great example of the potency of this maneuver, check out the way trainer John Sadler got 7-year-old Cadillac to win a downhill turf race at Santa Anita last fall.

At Gulfstream, do we give extra credit to a Billy Mott-trained horse who has been schooling at Payson Park over those whom he works with at Gulfstream? We should if we're paying attention. Likewise, do we appreciate the value of an Ian Wilkes-trained horse turning back from a failed route to an elongated sprint around one turn? We would, if we looked at the past performances of the useful 4-year-old Warrior's Reward among several others.

At the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, a first-timer trained by Louisiana-based Victor Arceneaux should jump off the page at you. A relatively low-profile horseman, Arceneaux has a powerful statistical edge with first-timers in Louisiana-bred races, accompanied by a positive return on investment.

In New York, during the current winter meet, when we see a race for bottom-level statebred maiden claimers in which the top speed figure is 46 and the favorite tops out at 37 - or several points below par for the level - shouldn't we look for a new shooter, or a horse dropping from maiden special weight company into this reduced level? If you don't think so, you probably missed Prince Cody at 6-1 in the sixth race at Aqueduct on Feb. 6.

At Santa Anita in a $20,000 claiming sprint for fillies and mares on Sunday, we would have had good reason to take the 6-1 offered on Sky Marni, whom A.C. Avila claimed for $12,500 on Feb. 3. Avila and his jockey partner Omar Berrio may not compete often in stakes, but they have maintained a winning profile with newly claimed horses on this circuit for several years.

So much of good handicapping is based on such fine-line interpretations. So much is intuitive. At the bottom line, what every player has to realize about this game is that horse racing is not a mathematical exercise; the art/science of handicapping cannot be reduced to ironclad formulas. That is why I believe this is the greatest gambling game of them all. It regularly tests our self-discipline and our patience; it makes us invent new concepts to understand subtle changes in what seems familiar; it challenges us to think creatively, insightfully. And it does this all the time. At the bottom line, I challenge each of you to think about your own handicapping methods as we move forward into the 2010 season. From my personal experience, any serious effort you make will yield its own rewards.