04/18/2002 11:00PM

It pays to find hidden live runners

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One of the most enjoyable things about the Keeneland spring meeting is the fun that can be had by handicapping and betting on first-time starters in 2-year-old races.

The first challenge for anyone considering betting on these races is to avoid being swayed by tips from well-intentioned friends. Tips flow quite freely at Keeneland at this time of year, so it isn't unusual to hear good things about four, five, or even six different first-time starters in the same 12-horse field. That isn't particularly helpful.

I've found that the best approach at Keeneland is to try to read between the lines while watching the tote board. The second race on Wednesday, April 17 is a good example. Atlantic Avenue was the 2-1 favorite in a field of 11 that contained 10 first-time starters. Atlantic Avenue was debuting for trainer Ronny Werner, who has enjoyed tremendous success with 2-year-olds over the last few years at Keeneland.

Although Atlantic Avenue was the favorite, he hardly appeared to be hot, or even warm on the board. With Werner's popularity factored into the equation, Atlantic Avenue's 2-1 price seemed too high to reflect anything more than token optimism on the part of his connections. The same can be said of second betting choice Jaguar X Cat, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, and ridden by Pat Day. He deserved respect as a possible contender at 3-1, but there was nothing about the betting action he received that made him appear to be anything more than that.

Only two other horses in the field showed significant betting support. Great Waters was the third betting choice at 9-2, and Lord Rambo was a close fourth at 5-1. There was a large gap between them and the fifth choice, who was 13-1.

Great Waters had trained well at Thistledown for Timothy Hamm, who had only two wins from 37 starters this year. Although Hamm has enjoyed success with first-timers on occasion, he is not well known among most handicappers in Kentucky. The fact that Jorge Chavez was aboard probably knocked the odds on Great Waters down a couple of points, but there were other top jockeys in the field, including Day and Robby Albarado. I interpreted it as being a positive sign that Chavez was interested in riding a debuting horse trained by someone who wasn't anywhere near the top of the trainer standings. The fact that Hamm's Great Waters had attracted enough betting support to be only 9-2 while competing against the likes of Werner and Lukas led me to believe that he was hot on the board.

I was encouraged enough by Lord Rambo's work tab to make him my top selection in my Keeneland analysis, but it should be noted that some of the other horses in that field also had been training well. Trainer Michael Trivigno had won only one race from 30 starts this year, so it was unlikely that his fan club was large enough to generate much betting support. Jockey Juan Matos probably did not shift much betting action his way, either, while competing against better known members of the Keeneland jockey colony. With that in mind, Lord Rambo's 5-1 odds suggested that he might also be a serious runner.

Lord Rambo grabbed the early lead, then cruised home to win by 8 3/4 lengths under hand urging by Matos after he dropped his whip at the sixteenth-pole. Great Waters was up close in third early, and rallied to finish second. Lord Rambo paid $12 to win, and the exacta returned $65.80. Atlantic Avenue broke a step slowly, then was bumped hard, so his seventh-place finish isn't as bad as it seems, but it is hard to imagine that he would have threatened the winner, even with a perfect trip. Jaguar X Cat was prominent early, then tired, with no apparent excuse for his fifth-place finish.

This example is not presented with the purpose of suggesting that every first-time starter trained by a popular trainer will lose if he receives only tepid betting support. Nor am I saying that every debuting runner who is well-bet is going to win. But this type of analysis has been effective for me in the past. And it beats the heck out of listening to well-intentioned friends who haven't picked a winning first-time starter since Strom Thurmond was a teenager.