Updated on 09/17/2011 1:09PM

Layoff horses can require a lot of guesswork

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If you regularly factor in Beyer Speed Figures when evaluating layoff horses, you could have had Puma's Pride at 22-1 in last Saturday's sixth race at Aqueduct. And you certainly should have hooked her up with the obvious top-figure favorite and hit the $164 exacta. Of course, it's never that easy. There's always a snag.

The race was your typical winter fare: a full field of New York-bred fillies and mares, allowance conditions, nonwinners of one other than, going six furlongs. The favorite, Reaching Up, had raced only two times, winning her maiden impressively on Nov. 26 in her second start and earning a Beyer figure of 73. She certainly held out more promise of improvement than the rest of the gang, many of whom had a dozen or more starts and showed little inclination to move to any higher level. But taking 3-2 on Reaching Up, in an overcrowded field, moving up out of the maiden ranks for the first time - that did not look too inviting. And experienced New York horseplayers know that, in these all-too-common New York-bred affairs, you don't want the obvious. Surprises are the norm. You have to look for value.

Puma's Pride looked like a strong possibility. On Oct. 18, she had run a lifetime-best race, finishing second at this same allowance level, beaten only by a half-length. Her Beyer of 68 put her near the top of the list, just behind Reaching Up. But there were two obvious problems. First, she had followed that strong effort with a real clunker, finishing ninth, beaten 18 1/4 lengths on Nov. 2 after being steadied at the start, and hadn't run since then. Since Puma's Pride is a statebred filly of only very moderate ability, the fact that she reacted with a poor effort after such a strong race was certainly not a surprise. But that layoff of almost seven weeks was disturbing. Could you really expect her to return to the races and repeat anything like her lifetime-best effort?

There were other snags - mostly involving other layoff horses in the same race.

Ava Anne - She had not run since way back on May 14. She had won her maiden with a very strong figure of 66 on April 3. At that point, she was only a very young 3-year-old. With normal maturation, she could improve substantially on that figure - if she was healthy, and if she was fit. In addition, she had earned that 66 Beyer at a 1 1/8 miles. She might not be as effective at a shorter distance.

The Rodeo Express - She had not started since April 19, when she won her maiden with a Beyer of 66. Earlier in her career she had earned a 71. She could also be a major threat - if she was healthy, and if she was fit.

Flying Pickle - She had not run since Oct. 26, when she won her maiden by 5 3/4 lengths with a figure of 64. But she had frequent gaps in her form, suggesting recurring physical problems. Still, if she was fit, and if she was ready, she had to be used in this very ordinary field.

As might have been predicted, the five filly contenders finished all over the place. The Rodeo Express did little, finishing seventh (Beyer 46), while her entrymate, Flying Pickle, trailed throughout and finally had to be eased in the stretch. If you guessed that at least one of these coupled layoff runners would show up healthy and fit, you got 8-5 for your money - and no run at all from either horse. All in all, a very nice entry. Ava Anne did a bit better, finishing fourth (Beyer 54), only seven lengths back. At odds of 13-1, she at least represented some value for your cash.

The favorite, Reaching Up, ran well (Beyer 72). She dueled for the lead on the outside and only surrendered by a head at the wire. She was probably best, but Puma's Pride wore her down. As it turned out, of all the layoff runners, she was the only one who was healthy and fit.

There's no way you could have guessed this before the race. You can look at the percentages of trainers who start horses after layoffs. You can look at the board (Puma's Pride would have looked rather icy). You could look at workout patterns. You could look at how the horse did after previous layoffs. You could look at all these possible indicators, but you can never overcome the basic reality: As outsiders, we handicappers are always just guessing about these layoff runners. We don't really have any idea who is completely healthy and who is fully fit. And we haven't even the smallest bit of information about why a horse hasn't run for so long, or why they might have been scratched in any recent races.

For 30 years, harness racing has at least told us that a horse was scratched "sick," or "lame," or by the "judges." And layoff Standardbreds at least have to run in qualifying races. You can always throw out these layoff starters with little worry about them surprising you in their first start. In Thoroughbred racing, we really don't have any clue at all.

We're supposed to be living in the great Information Age of handicapping. We have all these computer-generated statistics on trainers, sires, stretch-outs second time after a layoff, etc., etc. And, of course, we have the Beyer Speed Figures. But in some vital areas, we still know pitifully little. When faced with a horse coming back after a layoff, we're still very much in the Dark Ages.

Still, even working from a position of near-total ignorance, you should at least have had a piece of that $164 exacta. A little Beyer analysis, combined with a bit of luck and a whole lot of guesswork, can occasionally reward even the poor benighted handicapper still struggling in the dark.