08/16/2001 11:00PM

Learn to pre-handicap for an edge

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Most bettors wait until race day to begin handicapping. But getting an early start can be a significant advantage. In fact, you might as well begin the process of preparing for future race cards by doing your best to spot upcoming plays and horses to bet against at the end of each racing day.

Here are some of the things you can do each day, or at least try to catch up on each weekend:

1. Note which fields are unusually deep, or unusually shallow, with talent. When two horses figure about even on paper a few weeks from now based upon their performances in races at the same, or similar class levels, it will pay to recall that one of them is exiting what might turn out to be a key race, while the other beat only one serious contender, and a bunch of mediocre runners.

2. Pay special attention to beaten favorites. Did the chalk have a legitimate excuse based on a troubled trip, a disadvantageous track bias, an unfavorable pace scenario, etc. or did he genuinely disappoint? Even if there was an excuse, was it enough to explain away the full margin of defeat, or is it a weak alibi that will disguise the fact that the horse is on the decline? Most handicappers are too forgiving when it comes to betting beaten favorites back next time, especially if they are in the hands of a popular trainer and/or jockey. Being able to make an educated guess as to which ones are likely to run poorly again is the first step toward overcoming the parimutuel takeout.

3. Evaluate troubled trips in terms of the running style of each horse. If a closer breaks two lengths behind his rivals, the slow start might not count for much. But when a front-runner breaks two lengths behind the pack, then rushes up into a 21.60-second opening quarter, the energy he used to rally into the swift fraction will cost him much more than two lengths when he becomes exhausted in mid-stretch. Even without a fast pace, when a front-runner fails to break alertly, he's much more likely to be caught racing wide and/or between horses, hardships he wouldn't normally have to cope with if he had made a quicker exit. An off-the-board finish under these circumstances can be a total throw-out, and will lead to an attractive price next time out.

4. Check to see whether or not horses with a particular running style dominated the race. If the fractions were marginal and the horses who were 1-2-3 at the first call stuck around to finish 2-1-4, you'll want to downgrade them next time. And you'll also want to take a longer look at the horse who wasn't prominent early who rallied to finish third against the predominant trend of the race. The same goes for races dominated by closers in a race with a fast pace. They'll be overbet and will probably be vulnerable if the pace charts out differently on paper when they run back. Watch out for the speedster who hit the board while defying the trend of that race.

You should be able to find something worthwhile on most racing days. A glance at the Aug. 16 card at Ellis points out Two Dot Slew as in interesting prospect out of the ninth race, a 5 1/2-furlong allowance N2X on the turf. This 4-year-old filly had taken nearly three months off from April 21 to July 13. She was up close, made a mild mid-race bid, then faded and finished sixth of seven, beaten by 6 1/2 lengths with a 56 Beyer in her return. On Aug. 1 she dueled for the lead for a half-mile, then held on better while finishing fourth of six, beaten by only four lengths with a 69 Beyer.

This time Two Dot Slew tracked an aggressive pace, tagged the leader, second betting choice Rose Frances (the preferred half of an entry), put that rival away, drew off to a 1 1/2-length lead, but was worn down in deep stretch by 4-5 favorite Charm to lose by a neck, seven lengths clear of the third filly. That's a textbook example of an improving horse. Better yet, the runners who were fifth, seventh, and last at the first call in this eight-horse field capitalized on the favorable pace scenario when they finished first, third, and fourth. Two Dot Slew, second at the first call, was the exception as the only filly who flashed early speed who was still competitive at the finish. Put her on your horses to watch list.