03/16/2009 12:00AM

Logic works well at Tampa

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The 2009 Tampa Bay Derby is in the books, along with the other two graded stakes that were contested on March 14. But ontrack and simulcast players who have been focusing on Tampa Bay Downs this winter should stay on the beam. The last seven weeks of racing on the west coast of Florida may offer some of the most logical plays of the season.

Consider: Form has stabilized. There will be a high concentration of turf races, a good assortment of medium grade claiming events, and the maiden ranks have lost the strongest horses, leaving the pickings somewhat slim for horses who look quite a bit like Val's Gold, winner of a $8,000 maiden claimer on March 13.

A 5-year-old mare trained by the active, but low percentage Ida Paquette, Val's Gold had only mild credentials for a victory. But, compared with the depleted ranks at this low level of competition, Val's Gold towered over her rivals.

Not only had she led for much of her most recent race when second at the same $8,000 level at 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 22, but that first route try earned a 40 Beyer Speed Figure, the co-top fig in the field for the year. While she was tied with Pompano Beach Rose, Val's Gold had beaten that rival by 5 1/4 lengths in their common Feb. 22 race. The only horse with a higher lifetime fig - Osceola Dancer - earned her faster figs on turf at Colonial Downs last summer and had not raced since.

Post 1 didn't hurt either; neither did journeyman jockey Mike Allen, who had ridden a winner for Paquette earlier in the meet. At the bottom line - even at this rock bottom maiden claiming level - Val's Gold was a form standout against a typical collection of fillies and mares that had struggled all meet to hit the board.

In the race itself, Val's Gold went wire to wire without a serious challenge and paid a generous $10.60 to win. The only other horse with anything close to positive form - Pompano Beach Rose - finished second to complete a $26 exacta. Meanwhile, the overbet, 6-5 favorite Osceola Dancer, was a non-threatening fourth, 6 1/4 lengths behind the winner.

Beyond such straightforward betting opportunities in maiden claiming races that are likely to occur a few times between now and the end of the Tampa meet on May 3, players should consider a similar approach to entry-level allowance races there.

In the fifth race on March 13, for example, there were three horses who had graduated at first asking among a modest group of 3-year-old allowance fillies seeking their second career victory.

Absolute Salt had earned a relatively low Beyer Speed Figure of 43 graduating over Michigan-breds at Pinnacle Downs last October and had not raced since.

Shez So Special had scored with a respectable 61 Beyer Fig in her debut, but that was at Ellis Park last July and she too had not raced in eight months.

Snow Lass, on the other hand, won a maiden race for 3-year-old fillies in January at Tampa with a competitive 60 Beyer and also worked a good five furlongs on March 8 for popular Tampa trainer Lynne Scace for this logical next step in the program. In other words, stressing the basic handicapping notions of "recency" and Beyer Speed Figures would have led you to the winner and a moral lesson about Tampa Bay handicapping at this time of year.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Give the edge to horses who have recently won or run strongly over the track, especially against suspect fields that include horses with low Beyer Figs and/or absentees with no special credentials for a sharp performance. Unless there is a concrete reason to expect major improvement - such as a successful trainer pattern - absentees tend to perform poorly here during the late stages of the meet. Most in fact, will be prepping for a future outing, perhaps out of town.

While a few outrageous longshots are sure to win a few late season races here, basic handicapping principles tend to dominate most race results and that goes for the horses trained by Jamie Ness and Kirk Ziadie, who have persistently scored at 30 to 35 percent all season. During the final few weeks of this meet, Ness and Ziadie probably will be just as effective, but with a couple of logical twists worth keeping in mind.

Because Ness soon will be shipping north - probably to Canterbury Park in Minnesota - some of his culls are going to be dropped in class sharply to attract other trainers to take them away via the claim box. Players should downgrade most of these severely dropped horses while focusing on other contenders that ran well over the track at similar class levels.

Perhaps you will make a mistake or two tossing a suspicious Ness dropdown, but the price will be too short to worry about. On the other hand, both Ness and Ziadie, along with several other high percentage Tampa trainers, are likely to do quite well moving their strongest, freshest runners up a notch or two in class. This straightforward move takes advantage of the relative fitness of recently raced horses in good form vs. a slightly tired horse population needing a break towards the end of this five-month race meet.

A case in point occurred March 15, when Ness won a seven-furlong, $16,000 claiming race with the 5-year-old gelding Mr Guska, whom Ness claimed out of a third-place finish in a $12,500 race on Feb. 13. Mr Guska was perfectly spotted on the rise against a field that had not earned faster speed figures in their most recent outings. In fact, no other horse in the field had finished in the money in their most recent races.

On the Tampa Bay Downs turf course, which generally attracts competitive fields, it usually is wise to give shippers from Gulfstream and class dropdowns a built-in edge, especially if they have some recent racing to back up their class credentials.

Having covered Tampa Bay Downs racing during my career for a locally based newspaper and also having spent time playing this track from afar, there are no more important handicapping factors towards the end of the meet than the power of recency linked to legit Beyer Speed Figures for the level. When these two factors combine together, they often trump pace and distance issues and lead to a steady diet of logical late-season Tampa winners.