07/20/2004 12:00AM

Handicapping in a nutshell

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NEW YORK - For the fourth straight year, I had the pleasure of doing the Delaware Oaks Day seminar at Delaware Park last Saturday morning along with Daily Racing Form handicapper Jim Kachulis, who joined me there for the second straight year. As is the custom with most handicapping seminars, time was left after going over the day's card for questions from the audience. Sure enough, someone asked the question I have heard most frequently while doing these seminars:

"What are the most important factors in handicapping a horse race?"

The answer is, there are countless answers to this question. Handicapping, and betting style varies from horseplayer to horseplayer, which means the ranking of handicapping priorities can be as individual as the person. For example, a trip handicapper may put little emphasis on the time of a race, whereas speed figure handicappers may attach very little importance to class. If you are a win bettor, your approach to handicapping is surely different than the way a multi-race exotics player who focuses on pick fours and pick sixes would attack a card. And, when you consider that no single handicapping factor is really mutually exclusive from any other, the number of potential answers to this basic query increases exponentially.

After clubbing the innocent questioner over the head with this reality, the best I can do is offer him what for me are usually the three most critical things in handicapping a race. They are, in no particular order:

* I try to visualize in my mind the way a race will be run. Who is going to the lead? Can a horse clear with the lead and be comfortable enough to go all the way, or will this horse be pressed? More than that, will this horse have company on the lead? Will a speed duel develop? If a pace battle is in the offing, will it be debilitating enough to set the race up for a stalker or closer? Or, will the pace battle be so debilitating that it will even burn the kick out of the stalkers and make it a prime spot for the deep closers? Who is going to sit the trip? Which horses figure to save ground? Which horses will have to be decidedly better than the competition because they project to go wide and lose important ground?

* Is the horse suited to today's race conditions? The importance of this goes well beyond whether the horse is in the proper allowance condition available to him, or is in a claiming range he may find manageable, although those are important. Is today's race the right surface for the horse, whether it is turf or dirt or slop or mud? And even if it is a fast main track, is it a surface the horse has previously demonstrated a special affinity or dislike for? Is today's distance in the likely range of effectiveness for the horse? Is, for example, two turns something the horse needs to perform at his level of ability, or is it one turn too many? Is the combination of today's surface and distance a reasonable fit for the horse?

* Is the horse fast enough, or, to put it another way, too slow to win? This is where the importance of speed figures come in, namely the Beyer Speed Figures that appear in the past performances in this paper.

I believe people are far too literal in their use of the Beyer Figs, and bet a lot of dollars on the faith that a horse who earned an 85 Beyer last time out will today automatically beat horses who got Beyers of 83 and 82 in their last starts. Of course, there are many occasions that the horse with the 85 will beat the horses with the 83 and 82, but there are many times when that won't happen. That is because there are many factors that can have a profound effect on a final time speed figure, such as pace, trip, racing luck, quality of ride, and track bias. And even that isn't all of them. When you consider this, then

making steadfast decisions on two- and three-point Beyer Figure spreads becomes like splitting fine hairs. Sometimes it will work. Many times it won't.

Instead, I believe one of the great uses of Beyer Figures is in pointing out horses who are simply too slow to win. In races with well-established form - not races with young, lightly raced horses who can improve

wildly from one race to the next - you may find four horses who routinely Beyer in the 80's, and four others who routinely Beyer in the 60's. Because they are simply too slow, those horses stuck in the 60's will almost never beat the horses who can Beyer 20 points higher in their sleep, and they can be eliminated with confidence.