08/21/2008 11:00PM

Handicapping the modern way

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." - Alvin Toffler, author and futurist.

My daughters, who were then 11 and 9 and wise beyond their years, campaigned intensely for a home computer back in 1995, and I stone-walled them for as long as possible before finally giving in. Life was humming along just fine without such a contraption, I explained, so why exactly would we ever need to spend all that money on some new video game player?

Their initial impetus, I later learned, was a sophisticated homework-sharing network via e-mail and also downloading every popular song they wanted, but that's beside the point.

They had recognized the future in crystal-clear fashion, and their 30-something parents had to be dragged along kicking and screaming.

Being nothing if not consistent, I was also slow to warm up to Formulator, because I have enjoyed the tactile sensation of leafing through my Daily Racing Forms for better than 35 years, and that's simply how us baby boomers had always done it.

Part of the joy of handicapping was having enough Forms on hand to constitute a fire hazard, along with shelves sagging under the weight of dozens of marble composition books that contained past performance clippings for every pertinent trainer. Part of that "joy," I am realizing a little bit more each day, meant staying up bleary-eyed until the wee hours trying to find things, and getting a backache and ink-blackened hands in the process.

Though I am still not as fluent with Formulator as I would like to (and will eventually) be, it's becoming apparent that the old way of doing things is becoming obsolete. Formulator is inexorably replacing those stacks of yellowed Forms and chart books, and I must admit that jettisoning all the accumulated bric-a-brac is kind of liberating.

Not only does my back feel better, not only are my hands cleaner, but the process moves along with deeper efficiency in a fraction of the time, which at the end of the day is a horseplayer's most precious commodity.

For an example ripped from today's headlines, one of the key aspects of Sunday's Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga is deciding what to do with Mistical Plan and Miraculous Miss, the one-two finishers in last month's Princess Rooney at Calder. If Mistical Plan runs back to that lifetime top Beyer (108), the others are running for second money, but will she? Can any clues be gleaned from the subsequent performances of the fillies that were behind them?

Back in the day, researching what the horses in a given race came back to do was a labor-intensive endeavor, but with Formulator a wealth of information is at my now well-manicured fingertips. Thanks to ace DRF reporter David Grening, I know that third-place Princess Rooney finisher Dream Rush was forced to miss the Ballerina due to a minor setback, but what became of the others?

The full charts of every horse's last three races are embedded in the Formulator past performances, so it's just a matter of pointing and clicking on Mistical Plan's last race.

Presto, the Princess Rooney chart magically appears. Now, click on any horse in the race, and their up-to-date past performances are there before your eyes.

Click. Dixie Dreamer (fourth) came back to finish fifth, beaten five lengths, at 2-1 in the Regret Stakes at Monmouth.

Click. Rgirldoesn'tbluff (sixth) returned to finish fourth, beaten a dozen lengths, at 2-1 in some $50,000 dash called the Ema Bovary at Calder.

Click. Bereba (seventh) was subsequently eased as the 8-5 favorite in the $55,000 Magel Stakes on yielding turf at Calder.

Easy as one-two-three, and in about that much time, the Princess Rooney takes on the appearance of a negative key race. No one has come out of it to run well.

Does this mean Mistical Plan can't win the Ballerina? Of course not, but factor in five more pounds and an additional furlong, and her acceptable price creeps steadily higher.

"The game plan is to have her start running and get her a good position," said trainer Doug O'Neill. "She doesn't necessarily need the lead."

With Bayou's Lassie in the field, she may not get it. Bayou's Lassie comes off a pacesetting try in the Diana, run opening weekend on a rain-softened course that was very inhospitable to early speed at the time. She has a record of 3-1-0 from 6 career starts on dirt, but only one of the wins shows in the past performances that appear in the newsprint edition of Daily Racing Form. Her entire record (and the lifetime records of every horse in every race) is on display with Formulator (she won her first two starts sprinting at Calder in 2006).

Cyberspace is infinite, after all, and so are the possibilities.