08/18/2005 11:00PM

Keep cool on hot and cold streaks


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Horseplayers are generally good candidates to be fitted for tinfoil hats and straitjackets. It goes with the territory. Of all the nutty ideas they embrace, though, the peanuttiest may be the one that certain stables and trainers have meaningful hot and cold spells that should determine whether you bet on or against their horses.

The thinking, routinely propounded by both respected handicappers and the certifiably crazy, is that you're always supposed to bet on hot barns and avoid the cold ones. If a trainer wins a bunch of races, he is supposed to keep winning in bunches, while someone who hasn't found the winner's circle lately should be avoided until someone gives him a map.

It's a bigger issue than usual at Saratoga, where trainer and jockey standings are scrutinized more closely than elsewhere and common belief holds that the humans are as important as the horses in deciding the outcome of races. If you gave John Velazquez a leg up on a German shepherd from the Todd Pletcher barn, there is little chance the pooch would go off at much more than 3-1 in a 2-year-old maiden race.

At least until lately. Pletcher, who shattered the record for Saratoga winners at a meet by sending out 35 in 2003 and 34 last year, won an astounding 11 races during the first six days of this meeting. Then, over the next 14 days of racing, he won "only" three more. Players and pundits have pronounced him somewhere between frozen solid and deceased as he sits atop the standings with a mere 14 victories in 20 days.

Many things in life and racing happen in bunches, sometimes for a reason. A golfer or baseball player on a streak may have adjusted his swing or eaten some more Wheaties. Even a horseplayer on a roll might be doing more homework than usual and playing with confidence instead of scared money. When it comes to a trainer who isn't winning as much as he did last week or last month, though, it is unlikely that he has forgotten how to feed or gallop his charges or is using the wrong bandages. There are more likely explanations, which suggest that such swings are the rule rather than the noteworthy exception.

When horses win a race, they usually have to move up a level. The maidens that Pletcher won with opening week are now coming back in allowance or stakes spots. They might have to wait a start or two for the strongest members of those better conditions to win and exit the ranks before his horses come back and win again. He didn't have a miracle serum during week one, and he's not putting arsenic in the water buckets now.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is probably wiser to be completely contrary about short-term trends than to follow them. There is not only some logic to such contrarianism, there is also value. If everyone else is overbetting the hot outfits and underbetting the cool ones, which side do you want to be on?

This is not to say that trainers don't matter. The better ones get better stock and make the most of their opportunities, while the lesser ones struggle with less-talented charges. At one end of the spectrum is Pletcher, who going into Thursday's Saratoga card had won 145 races from 588 starts this year, a 25 percent strike rate. At the other was John Candlin, who was 3 for 130, roughly the same percentage as low-fat milk. This was not just a slow 2005 for the Candlin outfit: Going back two calendar years, Candlin was batting 6 for his last 209.

Those numbers may seem staggering, though not if you're used to looking at his horses' past performances. Candlin has a barn full of New York-breds, many of them maidens with long strings of double-digit losses and many of them purchased at auction for sums like $1,200. With statebred maiden races offering $46,000 purses, he's still in business.

Those 6 wins in 209 starts had all come in months with snow on the ground, at Aqueduct, Meadowlands, or Philadelphia Park, and at prices such as $114.20 (Alicia's Quick Draw), $75 (Ink the Deal) and $41.80 (JB's Annie). But on Thursday, he broke through at Saratoga on a day when Pletcher was a frosty 0 for 2, winning the nightcap with Easter Guardian ($80.50), a 4-year-old New York-bred gelding he bred and owns. Easter Guardian triggered a $59,581 superfecta, completed an $87,476 pick four, and prompted the first pick-six carryover in a week.

The lesson should be obvious, at least to those wearing aluminum chapeaux: The time has come to start betting on the sizzling Candlin stable instead of those ice-cold mutts from the Pletcher barn.