11/23/2001 1:00AM

Examine horse-for-course stats in context


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Most handicappers believe that it's crucial to note how a horse has performed in past races at the track he will be running at today. But they often misinterpret horses-for-courses stats.

The second race at Churchill on Nov. 13 contains a useful example: The Old Ennui had won two straight at Churchill, including a four-length win over $17,500 claimers with a flashy 91 Beyer on June 30. But his form tailed off sharply on Sept. 18, in his return from a 2 1/2-month layoff. He finished 10th, beaten by 13 lengths in a $25,000 claiming race on the grass at Kentucky Downs.

The Old Ennui dropped to $15,000, moved back to the dirt, and finished last of nine, beaten by 20 lengths at Keeneland. A drop to $13,500 on Nov. 4 yielded only a sixth-place finish, beaten by 9 1/2 lengths at Churchill.

Why, after losing his last three races by an average of slightly more than 14 lengths each, with inferior Beyers, and with a deep-closing running style that was not a good match for the way races on this main track are usually won, was The Old Ennui made the favorite on the drop in for $10,000? I was puzzled initially, but I believe that bettors still viewed him as a horse for the course on the Churchill main track with a 6-3-0-0 record there vs. 3-0-0-0 everywhere else.

Here's the flaw in that reasoning. It doesn't matter that a horse likes any particular track if that horse has gone off form. The Old Ennui, whose last three Beyers were 55, 46, and 59, was not in the same condition that produced the 91 Beyer in his win for $17,500 at Churchill. His 9 1/2-length defeat here on Nov. 4 should have made that point clear. The Old Ennui finished fifth at 2-1 in this race.

Horses with poor stats at a given track can be attractive overlays if you're willing to analyze that information in conjunction with their form cycles, and with the way they have been managed by their connections.

Ondatop, in the third race on Nov. 22, was better than her 9-0-0-1 record at Churchill suggested. One clue was that she had been overmatched while sent to the post at 68-1, 23-1, and 41-1 in the three Churchill races showing on her page. In addition, her Beyers in losses at Churchill were frequently better than the figs earned in defeats at other tracks in the races preceding and following her Churchill races. The final tip-off was that she had run an improved race at Churchill on Nov. 2 when she pressed the pace, then held on surprisingly well to finish fourth at 41-1, beaten by only two lengths for the same $25,000 claiming price she would run for on Thanksgiving.

Ondatop dueled for the lead outside of favored Starship Missy most of the way, then disposed of that rival. She pulled clear by two lengths and looked like the winner in mid-stretch, but was tagged late by off-the-pace runner Idelikeatoy, who was lucky to sneak through along the rail to win by a half-length. Ondatop paid $9.60 to place, and was part of the $125 exacta, and the $1,825.60 trifecta.

Ondatop's 9-0-0-1 record at Churchill was not an accurate barometer of her affinity for that main track. It had been distorted by the tough fields she had been facing, and had also been influenced by her form cycles. Handicappers willing to examine her record in depth held an advantage over those who had refused to give her a second glance.

The only catch to this approach is that it isn't well suited for quickly skimming through dozens of races at multiple tracks in a simulcast environment. It takes more time than that.

But the results easily justify the effort if you're willing to narrow your focus to just one or two tracks per day.