03/28/2002 1:00AM

Further evidence supports theory

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - A reader, David Kilmer from Los Angeles, recently offered some constructive and insightful criticism via e-mail regarding second-time starters, part of which is as follows:

"In his Feb. 16 column, 'Second-time starters almost always improve,' Dave Litfin repeated the same mistake he made when writing a similar article last year ('In search for overlays, second time's the charm,' Feb. 10, 2001, and 'An easy angle that's often overlooked by bettors,' Feb. 17, 2001). The sample he used is, as he said himself, '. . . the lifetime past performances of the world's best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds.' Perhaps the findings would be the same if the sample was not limited to 'the best,' but was instead a scientifically chosen selection of all Thoroughbreds. It seems reasonable, however, to be skeptical until a study is made which is not limited to a group limited to the best."

That is a valid critique, and I wondered about it myself until reading Mark Cramer's recently published "Hidden Probabilities: Hard-Core Research for X-Rated Horseplayers."

To recall, Handicapper's Corner examined the Triple Crown nominees from 2001 in search of a trend for second-time starters, and repeated the process again with the class of 2002.

In 2001 there were 262 TC nominees who showed measurable races from a Beyer Speed Figure standpoint in their first two starts. There were 76 (29 percent) whose second start was no appreciable change from the debut, within five points either way. There were 47 (18 percent) who declined by five or more points second time out. And 139 (53 percent) improved by at least five points.

In 2002, 233 TC nominees studied yielded 17 percent no change, 21 percent decliners by at least four points, and 62 percent improvers by at least four points.

The stats point toward improvement as the likeliest scenario. Last year, I concluded the article by saying, "In statistical terms, these findings are based on a relatively small sample. But my gut feeling is you could put another 10,000 horses through this exercise and come up with similar percentages. In fact, you can bet someone already has, and chances are they have been happily extracting money from the parimutuels for years."

Enter Cramer. He didn't run the test on 10,000 horses, but he did analyze an independent sample of 400 generic second-time starters that had finished out of the money in their debuts.

"For this research, races were chosen randomly," writes Cramer. "I simply grabbed Racing Forms from my shelves, and, in order not to fudge, I went through all second-time starters in every Form. The only 'manipulation'on my part was to make sure I had tracks from all parts of the nation, both big and small, within the sample. The findings are revealing to say the least."

I'm not going to divulge the details - the 10-chapter, 59-page research project is available through Cynthia Publishing, www.cynpub.com - except to say that Cramer's findings corroborate mine, and the similarities in some of our percentages are remarkable.

"After having had numerous greasy-spoon breakfast chats with trainers in backside kitchens, I can assure you that three-quarters of these guys use a debut race for 'schooling,' " writes Cramer.

As if to throw her two cents in, a second-time starter by the name of Terri's Toy won Wednesday's third race at Aqueduct, a maiden special-weight event at nine furlongs.

Terri's Toy had raced evenly in her March 8 sprint debut while receiving the comment, "Greenly inside," and had earned a Beyer of 47.

Stretched to two turns for her second start 19 days later, Terri's Toy was let go at 13-1 because the betting public is conditioned to focus on the top-figure horses. In this case the 8-5 favorite was Winchime, who had run 65-70-66 in her last three, but who was also still a maiden after 10 starts.

Terri's Toy didn't look good "on paper" per se, but she offered a second-timer's fairly typical improvement and won by two lengths, paying $28.60 in an eight-horse field.

It happens all the time. Assuming you buy into the theory and available research, two guidelines immediately present themselves:

1. Beware of taking short prices on what appear to be "standouts" in maiden races containing several second-time starters.

2. Races that contain several second-time starters are fertile ground for upsets, and these volatile fields are good spots to "spread" in multi-race exotics such as the pick three, pick four, and pick six.