01/15/2008 12:00AM

The ones to watch


Horseplayers have been making periodic lists of horses to watch since the game was invented. Generally speaking, these lists usually include horses that fall into one or more of the following categories.

* Horses that were compromised by difficult trips, including troubles at the start, traffic problems, poorly judged rides, very wide turns, and unfriendly pace or bias scenarios.

* Horses that showed a positive sign of life or improvement in a recent race or workout with more improvement presumed to be coming soon.

* Horses that may have been dealing with a physical issue or an idiosyncrasy that contributed to a poor performance with a change in progress that could bring about a wake up.

* Horses bred to do something they have yet to attempt. Specifically, horses bred to go long who have been racing short and horses bred to run on grass that have been running on dirt tracks.

A good example of a trip horse might be Maryfield, who had a very bad start in her fourth-place effort in the Princess Rooney at Calder in July 2007 before she won the Grade 1 Ballerina at 16-1 in August at Saratoga.

An example of a horse that signaled impending improvement was Kip Deville, who was wasting his talent running off on the lead until a series of improved workouts last winter signaled a more relaxed, more effective turn of form. He later won the Breeders' Cup Mile.

From the past, a great example of a horse with a physical issue might be Tank's Prospect, who won the 1985 Preakness in his second outing after an epiglottis operation allowed him to breathe better.

An example of a horse benefiting from a change to a preferred surface might be Showing Up, who was a good horse on dirt in 2006, but a much stronger Grade 1 winner on grass with the breeding to match.

While any horses-to-watch list may be used strictly to catalog a wager or two in the near future, such a list can be more effective as a tool to gain a deeper understanding of the methods used by good trainers seeking to take advantage of their underlying strengths.

That was why I personally decided several years ago to come up with an early-season list based mostly on nationally prominent horses trained by horsemen I needed to study more carefully. By placing them on my Daily Racing Form watch list at drf.com, I added to the research commitment by scheduling regular win and place wagers throughout the racing season.

Frankly, I believe that newcomers and experienced horseplayers could sharpen their own handicapping skills by choosing to identify their own list of promising horses on their home circuit or the national stage. A discerning eye might even find a few horses ready to show a profit for the year. Here is my list for 2008.

3-year-old sprinter: Massive Drama

Already a graded stakes winner at 2 and third in the one-mile San Rafael at Santa Anita on Jan. 12, Massive Drama leaves Bob Baffert a difficult choice to make and it will be interesting how soon he makes it. Will Baffert point Massive Drama for graded stakes sprints with a long-distance eye towards the Breeders' Cup Sprint? Or, will he try to get Massive Drama to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, where he would be a questionable classic contender? Until and unless Massive Drama wins or runs second in a 1 1/16-mile graded stakes, I will play this horse only when entered in one-turn races up to a mile.

3-year-old Derby prospect: Colonel John

While I might prefer the long-distance potential of trainer Billy Mott's Majestic Warrior, or a dozen other probable Kentucky Derby nominees, Colonel John has looked the part of a steady stretch-running 3-year-old who should appreciate true route distances. Most importantly, this is trainer Eoin Harty's first legitimate Derby prospect and a lot can be learned watching the steps he takes along the Triple Crown chase.

3-year-old filly: Proud Spell

It was great fun watching trainer Larry Jones deftly handle the hard-hitting and versatile Hard Spun throughout 2007. Proud Spell, a solid 2-year-old last year, may test Jones for a few new moves as she competes against Country Star, Indian Blessing, and Mushka at the top of this division.

Distance female on dirt: Golden Velvet

While I plan to watch the way John Shirreffs proceeds with the ultra-impressive Zenyatta, who won the El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita Jan. 13, it might be more instructive to watch Golden Velvet, a 4-year-old old import trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. Prior to her two good races in America last fall, Golden Velvet was running mostly on grass as a 3-year-old in France and Dubai. Under McLaughlin's care, further improvement seems likely in 2008. McLaughlin is a brilliant horseman whose work can be most instructive for horseplayers and rival trainers.

Distance male on dirt: McCann's Mojave

While this 8-year-old is an unlikely Grade 1 performer, he is a better horse than many realize. This can be confirmed by his upset victories in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park in January 2007 and the Grade 3 All American Handicap at Golden Gate Fields in November. After enjoying only modest success as a younger horse, McCann's Mojave was brilliantly brought to top form in January 2007 by Northern California-based trainer Steve Specht, who remains a low-profile trainer to most, including me. In addition to watching Specht's training decisions, I am eager to see how well this aging veteran performs in the 2008 Sunshine Millions Classic (scheduled for Santa Anita on Jan. 26) and wherever he runs through the year.

Turf male: Palladian General

This lightly raced and improving 4-year-old made a positive impression winning 2 of his last 4 in 2007 and early 2008, all on turf at distances from one mile to 1 1/4 miles. While he has yet to run in a stakes and might not become a Grade 1 performer, Palladian General has plenty of upside. As with all others on this list, his trainer, Carla Gaines, will be worth watching closely. Gaines has been a prolific winner across a wide spectrum of categories for several years, but nevertheless has not placed her personal stamp on many specific moves.

While I may expand this list during February to include several other categories, the six horses listed above should provide at least 20, perhaps as many as 40 wagers for the rest of the year - along with the chance to see just what the trainers behind them do from January to December.