03/10/2005 1:00AM

How to tell if young horse due to improve


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - There are freaks such as Formal Gold who start out super fast and stay that way, but the vast majority of Thoroughbreds take a while to put it all together.

No matter how impressively a young horse trains against the clock, whether in the company of workmates or not, there is no substitute for an actual race. Experience counts, big-time. Even the mighty Secretariat encountered all sorts of trouble in his career debut back on July 4, 1972, and wound up finishing fourth.

Any horse can lose his first race. Most do. It should be understood that, like Big Red, many perform nowhere near expectations that day.

This leads to a logical and important follow-up point, as obvious as it is underrated: Most horses improve with a race under their belt. Often the development is dramatic, like night and day, especially with well-bred runners readied by capable hands.

The Daily Racing Form you hold in your hands contains many instructive examples of this phenomenon.

Start with the lineup for Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. If you exclude Wilko, who began his career in England, the past performances of the 22 remaining 3-year-olds, with Beyer Speed Figures for each of their races, are on display.

Let's start with the quick learners. Six horses in the Future Wager field - Galloping Grocer, High Fly, High Limit, Lost in the Fog, Proud Accolade, and Spanish Chestnut - earned a Beyer of 90 or better first time out.

Five of these big-figure debut horses ran a lower figure in their next start. Most often the decline ranged from 2-10 points: High Fly 97 to 94, High Limit 90 to 88, Proud Accolade 94 to 88, Spanish Chestnut 94 to 84.

Galloping Grocer posted the largest drop, 95 to 77, winning by a dozen lengths in what was essentially a public workout.

So when a young horse runs a 90 or better Beyer first time out, a drop-off is normal in the second start. The exception here was Lost in the Fog. He followed his 103 with a 109, which qualifies as freakish to the nth degree.

Now take a look at the 16 horses who did not run a lights-out number right out of the box. With the exception of Going Wild, who essentially paired up figures in his first two starts at Belmont, everyone else posted an improved figure second time out. (Going Wild, as it developed, was sitting on a 32-point jump to a 104 at Santa Anita soon afterward.)

The second-out improvement among the 15 horses ranged from 6 to 40 Beyer points. The average forward move was 18 points. Throw out the two highest (Bandini, 40, and Consolidator, 37) and the two lowest (Afleet Alex and Don't Get Mad, 6 each), and the average improvement was 16 points, or about six to seven lengths at six furlongs.

The pattern holds with fillies. All six fillies in Saturday's Fair Grounds Oaks moved forward off their debuts. The average was 25 points, and still more than 20 points if Summerly's whopping 49-point surge is thrown out.

Four were second-out maiden winners, three by open lengths at worthwhile mutuels: Soul Search (16 points) at $9.60; Eyes on Eddy (20) at $11.40; and Oaks chalk Summerly, by 14 lengths, at $15.20.

Imagine getting better than 6-1 on Summerly in a maiden race, when a few races later you won't even get 6-5 in a Grade 2 stakes. Similar scenarios unfold regularly.

In terms of theory and practice, keep the following in mind:

* It is important to measure a horse's Beyer against the horses he meets today, but it can be equally important to measure a horse against himself. With lightly raced horses, this type of form analysis begins with the debut figure as it relates to subsequent efforts. A forward-moving horse should be able to surpass his debut figure in fairly short order, and the sooner the better; the longer it takes, the more negative it becomes. A horse who runs a huge figure first time out and fails to get back to it within the next several starts has probably shown his best already.

* Similarly, when 2-year-olds receive a break and return at 3, how long does it take them to meet or exceed their best early figures? Again, the sooner the better - and preferably not too much too soon, which can trigger a prolonged setback. Looking at Pool 2, those with a strongly favorable figure line based on their recent comeback races are Afleet Alex, Giacomo, Golden Shine, and Sun King.

* The second career start often marks the biggest single-race improvement of a horse's career. Look for second-time starters at overlaid odds that can win if they produce a few lengths' worth of improvement, especially those who flashed some speed or raced evenly first out and were not involved in a prolonged stretch battle. In many instances these will improve in astounding fashion.

* By the same token, beware of horses coming off a big-figure unveiling, particularly in maiden races containing new shooters and second-time starters. Bettors tend to fixate on the big fig and bang these things down to underlay status. They are far less likely to improve, and are potentially surrounded by wolves in sheep's clothing.