12/16/2008 12:00AM

Holiday traditions to live by

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It's the day after Christmas and with its customary holiday cheer in the air, The Great Race Place has opened for its four-month grinding business of handicapping and betting, now with a synthetic surface that is the swiftest in the world; no exaggeration.

If the returning 3-year-old Georgie Boy makes the gate at Santa Anita for the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at seven furlongs, not only should the classy colt be expected to shine, but also his final time can be projected faster than 1:20. In addition, the front-runners should go faster than 44.40 seconds to the pace call, and the turn-times of the contenders (the difference between the first call and second call) should be as blazing as 21.80.

It's the turn-times of this particular sprint that handicappers should stay alert to. Among several traditional gifts they should find spread before them during Santa Anita's winter-spring season, handicappers may find as many as five or six Malibu graduates will return to win, and win again. It's a brutally fast, competitive seven furlongs. Any front-runner, presser, or off-pace closer that delivers a turn-time faster than 22 flat and still beats half the field in good time qualifies as a horse to watch. It's a tradition, a grand tradition.

Before returning to Santa Anita's traditional gift list, handicappers must appreciate the new Pro-Ride surface may be so fast the actual times will be difficult to internalize, and virtually impossible to interpret intelligently without recourse to the corresponding speed and pace figures. During the 26 days of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting of September-October, the customary track variants for sprints and routes looked like this:

Sprints: Fast 2, Fast 6

Routes: Fast 2, Fast 8

On average, Pro-Ride sprints were faster by six lengths than the same sprints on the dirt surface of 2006, and the routes were faster by eight lengths than the same routes of the dirt surface of 2006. Day to day, the variations proved miniscule, and on the two days of the Breeders' Cup championship races, sprints were Fast 7 and routes were Fast 10, a highly symmetrical pattern. Students of time can anticipate this season's fractional final times at Santa Anita by examining the above chart, which lists projected par times for males 3 and older at seven common class levels and four common distances.

Especially intriguing among the track variants on Pro-Ride has been the relatively slower pace variants. While Pro-Ride sprints and routes went Fast 6, Fast 8, respectively, the fractional times at both distances remained a curious Fast 2, or a mere one length (two points equals one length) faster than the same times on dirt. On three days of Oak Tree's 26, in fact, the pace variant in sprints was slow, and on seven days of the 26 the pace variant in routes was slow. No doubt the anomaly reflects riding tactics on the new Pro-Ride, but it plays a bit of havoc with the resulting pace figures.

If the pace figure is soft, but the speed figure fast, does the relationship reflect a horse having a pace weakness, or mere riding tactics? Among the non-claiming 3-year-olds moving ahead in class, a circumstance without end throughout the Santa Anita meeting, the dynamic is crucial, and not readily understood. For handicappers who rely on pace figures to better understand the abilities of the younger, still-developing colts and fillies, nothing about the shift to synthetic surfaces has proved more problematic.

In this context, it's clear that horses exhibiting high pace figures are no longer as advantaged as has been customary for decades on dirt. Be skeptical of 3-year-olds showing pace figures higher than the related speed figures by more than two lengths. The excessive use of early energy may prove fatal in the final stages on the Pro-Ride, as was abundantly clear on the championship weekend. Throughout the two days, only the juvenile Midshipman scurried wire to wire, and the synthetic course was notably fair to off-pace runners, even deep closers.

In this context, the Pro-Ride surface has been favorable to classy late runners at seven furlongs especially, a condition that should support the comeback of Georgie Boy on opening day.

Now to the gifts that should keep on giving, Pro-Ride notwithstanding. Santa Anita should be viewed as a long season with a number of opportunities for practiced handicappers there.

* The downhill turf course is a horse-for-course layout amazingly suited to repeaters and to European imports.

As long ago as 1995, a professional handicapper, already enslaved at the computer looking for patterns that pay, advised me of a gift I have treasured ever since. If handicappers eliminate horses 4 and up that have never run on the downhill course, or have run poorly, they will be eliminating very few winners. He was decidedly correct. The inverse was equally correct. Horses that have won on the course, or have run well in good time, should be expected to do so again. Several will repeat as winners and pay surprisingly well.

Indeed, in the past two seasons at least five races on the downhill turf course were won by the only horse in the field that had won previously on the course. And European imports that remain eligible to the nonwinners allowances and to minor and ungraded stakes should often be preferred on this European-style layout, regardless of layoffs or changes in distance. Imports from South America, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Dubai have no similar advantage, but cannot be tossed.

The advice applies today, but all worlds change, and the opportunities on the downhill course have been diluted by a steady flow of maidens, nonwinners-once allowance types, lower-level claiming horses, and even maiden-claiming and starter eligible slowpokes, none of which should be expected to adapt to the tricky layout. These affairs are relatively unpredictable.

* Understanding the nonclaiming 3-year-olds becomes the season's crucible and the incessant Derby chatter, while annoying, can deliver a number of upsets along the trail.

Whether it's maiden grads moving into the nonwinners-once allowances or the improving 3-year-olds moving into the stakes, the 3-year-olds most likely to lose will be those carrying strong speed figures but weak pace figures. It's a wonderful hidden figure play, and it happens all the time. Smart handicappers will discount as if it were a golden rule the front-runners, pressers, and stalkers moving up in class with inadequate pace figures, which means pace figures more than two lengths below par. Implementing the strategy requires handicappers to construct or collect pace figures, but the task will be suited to the rewards.

As alluded to above, complicating the effective use of pace figures has been the arrival of synthetic surfaces, and the corresponding habit of jockeys to take a stronger hold of horses early. Traditionally, unusually strong pace figures among the nonclaiming 3-year-olds translated into successful wagers, even when the speed figures dipped below par. The pattern no longer prevails. Young horses exhibiting unusually strong pace figures will be expending excessive energy to the pace call on the deeper synthetic surfaces, and so far most of them have tired sufficiently to surrender late.

On Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, the preferred combination of speed and pace will be a speed figure at par or higher, and a pace figure within two lengths of par. Unless the front flights have been winning handsomely, be wary of pace figures more than two lengths superior to the corresponding speed figures.

The magnificent exception to the profile will be the putative Derby prospects. The Derby and its Grade 1 prelims demand sturdy combinations of speed and pace that have been superior to the graded-stakes pars for 3-year-old stakes winners of January-April (Beyer 103). Very, very few 3-year-olds can demonstrate the requisite ability in the multitude of stakes leading to the first Saturday of May, but the colts will be overrated regardless.

No matter the strength of a 3-year-old's speed figures, if the corresponding pace figures have been soft, prepare to bet aggressively against them. Invariably, these horses become popular media-supported Derby prospects and false favorites. In 2008, in an especially timely rendition of the pattern, only one 3-year-old recorded above-par speed and pace combinations prior to the Kentucky Derby, the champion Big Brown. All others were pretenders that were ripe for the upsets that did occur. Profits can run high, provided handicappers have constructed a sensible alternate opinion.

* Claiming races limited to 3-year-olds will be won by allowance dropdowns.

From January to June, the 3-year-old claiming horses, regardless of the price tags, are early washouts. Ignore them without mercy, in favor of colts and fillies on the drop out of allowance races, provided they have exhibited even a trace of ability in the allowance race - early speed, a mid-race move, even effort, strong final fraction, or beat half the field.

Profits from this pattern too have been diluted by the inexorable decline in the quality of the new 3-year-olds on display. Traditionally, the claiming 3-year-olds carried price tags of $80,000 and $62,500-$50,000, down to $40,000-$32,000 by spring, and the drops out of allowance races occurred routinely, the owners willing to accept the claiming money as a fair bargain. Now the 3-year-old claiming horses of winter-spring go with lower price tags, as low as $20,000 to $12,500 even, and owners do not risk swapping young horses for small money.

In this context, the claiming races restricted to new 4-year-olds do not succumb to the same allowance dropdowns. Four-year-old claiming horses now run against their age group throughout the Santa Anita season.

* Maiden races for 3-year-olds as well as for 4-and-older horses will be won disproportionately by second-time starters.

The ripest situations find the second-time starters having speed figures two-to-five lengths below those of the high-figure horses. Normal improvement among second-time starters will be three to five lengths, although several will improve dramatically, and although the profits no longer run as high as formerly, many second-time starters continue to pay more than they should. It bears repeating annually that Secretariat lost the first time he ran. As the season progresses, as from winter to spring and summer to fall, the chances of first-time starters are even less.

The pattern does not apply to maidens on the turf, long or short. These races have increased terrifically in recent seasons. Going long, experienced maidens should show final fractions of 12 seconds a furlong or perhaps 12 1/5 seconds a furlong, but no slower than that. First-time starters on the turf should show Tomlinson ratings of 280 and higher, as Tomlinson himself has urged, although a pedigree rating of 320 and higher will be far more reliable.

The normal improvement expected of second-starting maidens does not extend to second-time starters in maiden-claiming processions. The rationale for the improvement holds a majority of second-time starters that possess talent will have learned enormously from the chaotic combustion of their debuts and should improve tremendously. With rare exceptions, maiden-claiming horses have no talent.

* Be on the lookout for paired-figure patterns.

When horses deliver the same or a highly similar performance twice in a row, figure analysts have advised handicappers what to expect. The Beyer Speed Figures will be identical, or within a point or two of one another. Young, still-developing horses and the lightly raced 4-year-olds should move forward off the pattern. If they do not move forward, the assumption must remain the horses already have demonstrated their best efforts, and when they deliver their best efforts again, the figures will be the same as or highly similar to the paired-figure pattern.

The variations among the older experienced horses are trickier. If the paired-figure pattern has occurred at the top of the horses' form cycles, expect a decline. Most 4 and up experienced horses will decline, and several will be favorites that can be expected to lose. If the paired-figure pattern has occurred below the top of the horses' form cycles, the expectation should be the horses are cycling back to their top form. Expect an improved performance next time.

* The majority of the cheap races now common on all cards do not lend themselves well to fundamental handicapping.

Cheap races encompass: MdnClm $25-$40, starter allowance races for MdnClm-$40 or lower grads that have never won two races, restricted claiming races to nonwinners of two lifetime, claiming races restricted to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, and the $10,000 claiming races. Because the horses will be cheap, they will be inconsistent. Good performances are not repeated. Unpredictable upsets occur regularly.

These desperate races become the province of pattern recognition and trainer-jockey angles. A highly recommended source of information not well distributed among handicappers and punters is Daily Racing Form's Formulator software, now Internet-based at drf.com. Look for win percentages that are not only unusually high, but also pay unusually well, a return on investment significantly above $2 for each $2 wagered.

In one cheap situation, increasingly common at Santa Anita, fundamental handicapping often does apply. In the restricted claiming races, commonly nonwinners twice lifetime at the $25,000 and $12,500 levels, early speed will be trump. Look longingly for lone front-runners. The multiple winners that have been barred will be virtually all the early speed horses. The leftovers possess little speed and scarcely a trace of class. It's nice to have the lead entering the stretch with slow horses behind.

On these optimistic forecasts, handicappers can look forward to a Happy New Year at Santa Anita Park.