07/06/2004 11:00PM

More bounce than a basketball

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LAS VEGAS - It was all about bouncers in last Saturday's Prioress at Belmont Park. Nearly every filly had either 1) bounced in her previous race; or 2) should have bounced in her previous race; or 3) could very likely bounce in the Prioress. All you had to do was figure out who was going to bounce (and how badly), and who was going to recover (and by how much).

Very Vegas, She's a Mugs - First lesson: eliminate the losers. The recent Beyer Figures of Very Vegas on the dirt were not even remotely competitive with the contenders in the Prioress. She was a safe elimination. She's a Mugs had run back-to-back Beyers of 80, with her most recent earned in a grueling stretch run. Those figures were hopelessly behind the rest of the field. She's a Mugs actually improved to an 88 in the Prioress - only good enough for a fifth-place finish.

Aspen Gal - No bounce angle here - just consistency. She had earned back-to-back Beyers of 87 since returning from a layoff. Unfortunately, those two efforts did not even equal her 2-year-old best of 88 on Nov. 1, 2003. She was showing no sign of normal, expected improvement as a more fully developed 3-year-old. Another elimination.

Bohemian Lady, Feline Story - These two runners exhibited a classic cycling pattern. Bohemian Lady, for example, had improved her Beyer Figures from 79 to 89 to a lifetime-best 97 in a draining effort at 7 1/2 furlongs on April 29 at Churchill Downs. Then she bounced down to an 81 in her most recent race. Feline Story had earned a lifetime-best 93 in an all-out effort, battling every step of the way over a sloppy track at Belmont on May 19. Then she bounced down to an 80 in her most recent race, although she lost by only a head.

Horses like Bohemian Lady and Feline Story can be tricky to evaluate. Would they continue to decline in the Prioress before beginning to rebound? Or did their most recent efforts represent a new bottom, with immediate improvement expected in the Prioress? And if they did improve, how far forward would they move? As it turned out, Bohemian Lady continued to decline, down to a Beyer of 76. But Feline Story rebounded immediately, up to a Beyer of 92 - good enough for a second-place finish.

Forest Music, Why You - These fillies were each coming off bounce-and-win efforts. Forest Music had a troubled trip in the Miss Preakness on May 14, and fought through the entire stretch to earn a 100 Beyer. And that was after a five-month layoff. Not surprisingly, she bounced down to a 91 in her next start, but that was still good enough to win on a sloppy track at Monmouth while loose on the lead at five furlongs. In which direction would she move in the Prioress? Why You had improved up to a huge figure of 99 on May 26, then dropped to an 87 on June 10 in her most recent race. She was able to win comfortably in an allowance field that day (although she was disqualified), but she would have to rebound figurewise if she wanted to challenge in the Prioress. Forest Music and Why You improved only slightly, and so finished third and fourth.

Bending Strings, Friendly Michelle - Here we have classic patterns for a bounce. Bending Strings had improved up to 94 and 96 in her two previous races. At odds of 7-2, you would have to leave her out of your play. And she did indeed fall back, all the way down to a figure of 82. Similarly, Friendly Michelle had just earned back-to-back, lifetime-best Beyers of 98. I wouldn't want to bet her at odds of 9-5. But she defied the logic of the bounce and ran another 98, winning the Prioress by 2 1/4 lengths.

Fortunately, the Prioress was just too complicated to merit any wager. But the logic of the bounce was proved out, despite the victory of Friendly Michelle. There were seven clear bounce scenarios in the recent form of the Prioress runners. Five of those resulted in substantial declines in Beyer Figures. Only two did not. Five out of seven: That's a very high percentage in this business. Of course, two of the bouncers - Forest Music and Why You - were still able to win, which is just another wonderful complication in the endless variety of Thoroughbred handicapping.

The bounce provides indispensable insight, but, like everything else in this game, it's never automatic. Your bottom line must still be ruled by the iron troika of wagering: selectivity, percentage, and value. And the bounce can often be the key to all three.