11/26/2007 12:00AM

Game still the same

EmailI have been playing the horses since I was a freshman in college in 1960 and recently I was asked at a handicapping seminar to compare the challenges of then and now, a worthwhile question to explore.

When I started out, there were three main schools of handicappers: class handicappers, speed handicappers, and handicappers who stressed the value of consistency.

Class handicappers usually preferred horses that had met better competition or were dropping in claiming price or set to face weaker horses. Class handicappers relied on race labels and relative claiming prices, but they also cataloged the best horses on their circuit, so they could spot familiar names among the top three finishers in the "company lines" of the past performances.

As a young and eager horseplayer, I fell in love with class handicapping when I played an 8-1 shot named Carry Back to win the $280,000 Garden State Stakes on my home track in October 1960. What turned me on was Carry Back's two good efforts against Hail to Reason, a winner of seven juvenile stakes that year.

"If he could run well against that horse, Carry Back should beat these," I reasoned with straightforward handicapping logic.

Speed handicappers of the day preferred horses who had run faster raw final times for the distance, although some speed handicappers disregarded final time clockings and made more sophisticated comparisons combining Daily Racing Form Speed Ratings with the roughly calculated Track Variants that were included in DRF past performance lines. While modern Beyer Speed Figures - which are more accurate measurements of speed - have been included in DRF past performances since 1992, the original DRF Speed Ratings and Track Variants remain in the past performances s with minor modifications.

In the era prior to Beyer Figures, when a horse earned an 88 DRF speed rating on a track listed with a 15 track variant, the speed handicapper of the day would combine both numbers to get a rating of 103 for that horse's race.

I fell in love with these ratings the day they helped me pick eight of nine winners at Aqueduct, betting $5 win and $5 place. One of the winners was a filly named Apple Eva who beat colts at 25-1. Had I realized the true difficulty of her task, I probably would not have cashed.

Consistency handicappers followed a school of thinking popularized by author Robert Sanders Dowst, who probably would be appalled at the fragility of today's horses and their relatively short form cycles.

In those days, however, it was possible to pick many winners relying strictly on the most consistent horse in the race - the horse with the most wins or in-the-money finishes.

From personal experience, I can recall cashing a 6-1 win bet on a juvenile filly named Cicada on my first visit to Saratoga after noting that she had racked up 10 straight in-the-money finishes, including 5 wins. Who could not be a devotee of consistency after that? Too bad, I guess, that $20 was my 1961 wagering limit.

In today's world, horseplayers are treated to dozens of good handicapping books, hundreds of handicapping ideas, reams of statistical data in DRF past performances, and as many handicapping theories as there are races to dissect.

Armed with a computer, today's player can reach numerous websites that provide sophisticated concepts and tools beyond the imagination of anyone who played this game in the 1960s. Yet, today's player too often seems intoxicated by this unprecedented access and the increasing sophistication of the tools at his or her command.

In my judgment - perhaps as a senior citizen, perhaps as someone who has done plenty of handicapping research - a lot seems to have been lost that deserves to be found. A lot is being taken for granted by thousands of modern players who may have jumped into the game without having to struggle with basic speed-figure calculations, basic class issues, and the increasing fragility of the consistent horse.

It may seem obvious to serious players that speed, class, and consistency remain vital elements to the handicapping equation, but it is truly rare to find a player that can integrate these and other fundamental elements to know which may prove dominant in a given race.

Consider the following questions to help make this point:

* Do you know when the top speed-figure horse is unlikely to have any edge at all? Putting this another way, why would you trust a horse who earned the top figure while loose on the lead if he is going to face more pace pressure today?

* Do you give extra points to a class-dropping horse set to face weaker or slower rivals? Or, are you willing to downgrade a horse who ran sharply for $50,000 claiming two weeks ago and is is dropping to $25,000 today? Can you read between the lines?

* When you encounter a horse with one win that has finished in the money a dozen straight times should you think exacta or trifecta or simply toss him out? Do you know to look for key changes that could lead to improvement, or is this horse likely to repeat his penchant for minor awards?

* When you encounter a consistent horse who also is the top speed figure in the field and who will meet weaker company, do you swallow the short price and key him in all your multi-race exotics? Or, do you look at the prospective pace of the race and the distance, or other factors that could lead to an upset? If you want some insight into this question, I would suggest looking at the Cigar Mile and Hollywood Derby, both run last weekend.

In the Cigar Mile, half the world practically conceded the race to the dominating Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Midnight Lute, a double Grade 1 winner with high Beyers. In the Hollywood Derby, Nobiz Like Shobiz was unanimously praised as "the horse to beat" by virtue of his three turf wins and a good fourth in the BC Mile. Yet, Midnight Lute was defeated by front-running and steadily improving Daaher and Nobiz Like Shobiz was never a factor while the improving Daytona controlled the pace as expected to win the Hollywood Derby.

Win or lose, did you consider the possibilities?

In the old days, good handicappers did not have all the advantages you and I possess in the 21st century. But the game has not changed as much as most people believe. Horses with subtle advantages can be strong contenders. Sometimes they may be slightly fastest or the one most likely to outbreak the field. Sometimes they may be the classiest horse or the most consistent, and sometimes they will combine those elements or possess a subtle pace edge that can trump all three. When to use what element is the secret of handicapping and to uncover that formula requires the best tool you will ever come across.

It is not found in your computer; it is not in any of the good books out there; and it is not on any website. Just as in the 1960s, the best handicapping tool you will ever need is located in a space you cannot see - right smack dab between your ears.