11/10/2004 1:00AM

First start off layoff often difficult to gauge


LAS VEGAS - You can learn a lot from a horse like Island Fashion. Her form going into the Breeders' Cup Distaff raised a number of problems we have to deal with every day - in less exalted circumstances, of course.

Last winter Island Fashion earned Beyer Speed Figures of 111 in two different races at Santa Anita - including the Santa Anita Handicap, in which she finished second against the toughest male competition. After a disastrous visit to Japan in June, she returned to the races on Oct. 3 at Santa Anita. In the Grade 2 Breeders' Cup Handicap that day, she struggled every step of the way, dueling through the entire stretch, and barely won by a half-length in a mediocre field. Her winning figure of 94 was disappointing and far below her best in the previous winter.

How did this "prep" race set her up for the Distaff? The prerace analysts were all over the lot. Some argued that she probably "needed" the Santa Anita race, and that she could improve substantially on her Beyer of 94. Many handicappers expect this kind of automatic improvement in the second race after a layoff. It's a bit of conventional wisdom we hear all the time. But other analysts pointed to her low Beyer and her difficulty in beating quite ordinary opposition. A repeat of that level of effort would get her nothing in the Distaff - even with the late defection of Azeri to run in the Classic.

You're always guessing to some extent whenever you try to decide whether a horse is fully fit after a layoff. There are a number of factors you can look at in order to make an informed guess - including a trainer's usual modus operandi - but you can never be sure. One critical element, however, was never mentioned in the pre-BC chatter about Island Fashion. When a horse has been laid off for an extended period of time and returns with an all-out, draining effort, that should send up dramatic warning signs about that horse's chances of improving, or even repeating, that effort in the second race back. Look at it this way: if a filly like Island Fashion is fully fit, and struggles to beat inferior competition while earning an inferior Beyer, then she is probably not as good as she was earlier in the year and you certainly can't anticipate improvement in her second start; and if she is not fully fit, how will such a draining effort affect her? Rather than enhancing her fitness, such an all-out effort could actually set her back, physically. Asking a less-than-fully-fit filly to extend herself to the maximum in order to win a prep race is not the best way to prepare for even tougher competition.

In the Distaff, Island Fashion had a very tough trip, but she faded badly in the stretch. And, in a very slow Distaff, she finished fifth, losing by nearly five lengths and only earning a Beyer of 94. The lesson here is simple: Don't just assume that horses will improve second time after a layoff; and take into account how demanding a come-back race the horse had.

The case of Cajun Beat is also instructive. Just like Island Fashion, he had a poor Beyer performance of 102 in the Grade 1 Vosburgh after a long layoff - an obvious prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. But unlike Island Fashion, he did not appear to overextend himself in that effort. He chased and faded in what looked like the typical performance of a runner not yet fully fit. Some analysts thought this set him up perfectly for an improved performance in the Sprint and a repeat of his 2003 Breeders' Cup victory. But could you reasonably expect him to improve enough from that 102 to be competitive in the Sprint - a race normally won in the 114 range? That's a huge Beyer gap to make up. And, even more disturbing, his two races in Florida last winter earned Beyers of only 105 and 102, and his effort back in March in the Dubai Golden Shaheen was mediocre at best. That made four consecutive mediocre efforts in 2004. So there were enough warning signals that, while he might improve in the Sprint, he simply did not look like the same horse who peaked remarkably as a 3-year-old to win the 2003 Sprint.

In the 2004 Sprint, Cajun Beat raced evenly in the three path and finished fifth, more than three lengths behind the winner. He earned a Beyer of only 103.

It's always a tricky business trying to anticipate how horses will perform after long layoffs, or second time after a layoff. The key is not to make automatic assumptions. Don't just assume that a horse has to run better second time back. And don't assume that, after a useful prep, a horse will improve dramatically or return to his previous best. Evaluate any horse's past performances in his larger Beyer context - as in the case of Cajun Beat - and always consider the amount of stress encountered in the first race after a layoff - as in the case of Island Fashion. Then, at least, your guesses should be better informed.