02/11/2004 12:00AM

Horses do bounce, even at Santa Anita

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BOSTON - I began to wonder: Are the parameters of Stress-Regression Theory more perplexing in Southern California than at other Thoroughbred venues? In other words, do horses bounce the same way at Santa Anita as they do at other race tracks?

During my first few days of playing Santa Anita there were a number of runners who didn't bounce the way I expected. Since I was new to Southern California racing, I had to ask myself: Was it possible that different training methods, more exhaustive workout regimens, or local medication rules could limit the number of bouncers? Not that you can expect all or even the majority of obvious bounce candidates to run much worse after turning in stressful efforts. But the percentage of runners coming off stressful efforts who bounce is usually substantial, and the value is certainly there when you can go against these overbet favorites. Fortunately, as the Santa Anita meeting has progressed, the classic peak-regression-recovery syndrome has reestablished its validity. In the past few days alone we have had a variety of fascinating examples:

Jones Tale: If they took nominations for Most Likely to Bounce, this colt could be among the biggest vote-getters. He's a 4-year-old who has run only four races, and he has substantial gaps between each of them. He's a big speed horse, and he just ran a huge race after an 11-week layoff, dueling and chasing through the entire six furlongs while earning a lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure of 87.

On Feb. 5 he returned only three weeks after that exhausting effort (something he has never done before), facing another seriously speedy, determined sprinter. Despite all these warning signs, Jones Tale went off at 1-5. He didn't run badly, but the other speed horse, Timely Jeff (at 3-1), beat him by three lengths. Jones Tale barely held on for second by a half-length. His Beyer fell from 87 to 79.

Memogram: This 4-year-old filly also looked like a candidate for regression. But her record was a bit more ambiguous than that of Jones Tale, as she had fewer pure negatives.

While she also had been lightly raced, she had managed to run a total of seven races in her career, and, unlike Jones Tale, had been able to run two races back to back within short spans of time. Still, she did not look the picture of health, and her connections had just dropped her down in class after a four-month layoff in order to win her previous race. But she had a clear, easy lead in that effort and, while she did earn a lifetime-best Beyer of 89, it wasn't the kind of exhausting trip that often predicts a bounce.

Two factors decided the issue for me in her Feb. 5 race: her underlay status at 6-5, and the presence of Hagerstown in this five-horse field. Hagerstown appeared to be improving again, up to a figure in the low-to-mid 80's. If Memogram regressed, Hagerstown should be able to beat her.

Unfortunately, that's not how it turned out. The track turned out to be strongly speed-favoring that day, and Memogram was able to wire the field. While her Beyer did decline a few points to an 85, Hagerstown was stuck on the outside and couldn't do any better than repeat his previous figure of 79 - good enough for a 2 1/2-length loss.

Badgett's Mandate: After earning a 76 Beyer while finishing second (albeit against the bias) on Dec. 26, this 3-year-old colt had jumped up to a huge 99 Beyer in the Sunshine Millions Dash on Jan. 24.

On Feb. 6 he returned in an allowance race with only two weeks' rest. Despite all these flashing caution lights, and despite the fact that he was being stretched out to a mile, he was sent off at 3-5. He managed only a weak third-place finish, more than six lengths behind the winner. His Beyer dropped to an 81.

Purple Toi: Her most recent Beyers had improved steadily from 33 to 47 to 52, and then jumped way up to a 72 in her most recent race. She looked vulnerable to a bounce, and at 3-2 she certainly looked like a must-bet-against.

She finished fourth in that Feb. 4 race, beaten by eight lengths. A heavily-bet first-time starter won the race, and a very logical figure horse finished second at 8-1.

Gross Margin: His Beyers had improved from 58 (on the turf), to 70, to a lifetime-best 77 in his previous race. And he earned that figure while dueling for the lead through seven draining furlongs.

While his bounce potential didn't look quite as alarming as some others, at 6-5 in a 10-horse field on Feb. 4 he looked vulnerable enough. And this race had a truly exciting horse - at least, exciting for me. Adopting Habit had the kind of cycling Beyer pattern I always look for.

Adopting Habit started life at Golden Gate, where he earned a 65 in his debut (although he had saved ground the entire trip and didn't look like he did much running). He fell back to a 50 when shipped to Santa Anita and sent around two turns. Then he improved to a 57 in his most recent race.

If he could move up again to something in the 65 range he could be in the mix in a very complicated race. On Feb. 4, of 56-1 he was certainly worth a deeper look. After all, here was a rare chance for true parimutuel glory.

Gross Margin did indeed bounce. His Beyer fell from 77 to 68. He lost by six lengths to the very logical winner, Stand and Fight. Unfortunately, Gross Margin held on for second by a desperate half-length. What happened to Adopting Habit? Well, he ran much faster than your typical 56-1 shot. In fact, he ran more like a 36-1, or even a 26-1 shot. He finished a non-threatening sixth out of 10, beaten by 11 lengths. His Beyer didn't improve at all. He ran another 57.

So much for glory. But there is comfort in finally establishing at Santa Anita the familiar overall reality we find at all other tracks. That reality is simple: Some horses bounce, some horses don't. But the overall mix is favorable, and the value is certainly there.