07/09/2002 11:00PM

Keep those trainer angles fresh


LAS VEGAS - With the Saratoga and Del Mar meetings just around the corner, this is the busy season for trainer-angle players. Some players swear by them. Others are skeptical. But the truth, as usual in handicapping, can get very complicated.

There's no doubt that certain trainers tend to operate in certain predictable ways - and that you need to understand which trainers are hot and which are not, which tend to have their horses ready first time out and which prefer to develop them more slowly, which trainers favor certain jockeys, and which tend to point toward certain meetings.

And there's a compelling insight behind this approach: That is, racing is as much about people as it is about horses. The people call the shots, so an understanding of their motives and intentions is often critical. If, of course, you can figure out what those motives and intentions are.

For example, at Belmont this spring and summer, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin developed a fairly consistent pattern. A substantial number of his horses, most of which are owned by Sheik Mohammed bin al Maktoum, ran much better in their second time out after a layoff. Out of 15 second-time-layoff starters, six improved their Beyers dramatically, three improved by a few points, four ran about the same, and only two ran much lower - and those two were the only horses who had run very well first time after the layoff.

This is what I would consider a solid, short-term, real-time perspective - probably the most valuable approach to trainer angles. You see a pattern developing and then try to factor it into your handicapping. You might miss one or two early opportunities, but you have the benefit of an angle that is proving its value here and now. But, if I were going to assume that this pattern would repeat itself next year at Belmont, I would need to know whether this is the way McLaughlin has always operated, or whether there might be some other explanation behind this pattern that made it so prominent this year. In any case, I would want to see some evidence of the angle reasserting itself in 2003 before I just blindly assumed it was going to repeat itself.

As Jim Mazur points out in "The Saratoga Handicapper 2002," trainer tendencies can be here one year and long gone the next. Take Bill Mott, for example. In 2000 at Saratoga all of Mott's first-time starters were an automatic bet-against. At that point Mott had mostly late-developing distance horses, mostly for grass, in his barn. But the death of Allen Paulson and the expansion of Mott's operation forced him to seek new owners who had very different types of horses. Mott adjusted quickly, and in 2001 at Saratoga he reversed the pattern completely and had five winning firsters.

So, when you are trying to determine the value of an alleged trainer pattern, be skeptical. Is it just a one-meet wonder, or has the trainer been operating this way for years? Has anything changed in the number and types of horses or owners handled by this trainer? (That is easy to see with a highly visible trainer like Mott, not so easy with less celebrated trainers. It takes research.) Is the sample size of the alleged pattern big enough to give you confidence that this pattern is not just a temporary aberration or a statistically meaningless glitch? After all, if the sample size is too small, what you might have is just a little knowledge. And we all know how dangerous that can be.

One final warning: if you see a trainer angle that goes something like, "In the past three years at Saratoga, trainer X has won three out of five times with older claimers starting in the first 13 days of the meeting when using jockeys A and B," be especially wary. In this case, the very limited data has been trimmed and fitted after the fact to manufacture some sort of Rube Goldberg "pattern." It has no sensible basis in trainer style, intent, or motivation.

The past is not always prologue. Often it can be a trap. What happened last year does not automatically constitute a trend for this year's meeting.

Certain general trends can probably be counted on - like the prevailing winds. First and foremost at Saratoga, there's the inevitability of Pletcher and Mott. Todd Pletcher has lots of quality 2-year-olds. In fact, he has already won with 11 firsters this year. And Saratoga has lots of races for 2-year-olds, so Pletcher can be expected to win a lot at the Spa. Mott has lots of quality runners in all categories, especially grass runners, so there are plenty of races for him to win as well.

But beyond these constants of racing life, don't bet last year's trends until you get some glimpse of this year's trends. Remember, that was last year. You want this year's winners.