02/09/2006 12:00AM

Up or down? How young horses Beyer second time out

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The news of Stevie Wonderboy's injury was barely digested when it was learned Sorceror's Stone had also dropped off the Kentucky Derby trail because of a bum ankle. Sadly for handicappers, each year it becomes more important to get a quick and reasonably accurate read on 2-year-olds and early-season 3-year-olds. So many of them, it seems, are here today and gone tomorrow, especially the good ones who are apparently too fast for their own good.

It's fairly common knowledge the most significant improvement of a horse's career is most likely to occur second time out, and yet one of the game's most consistent overlay situations involves the second-time starter who needs to improve a few lengths in order to compete with a more experienced rival, often a heavy favorite, who has put up a flashier figure or two.

Dramatic improvement by a second-time starter is common but it is not automatic; some second-timers regress, particularly those that had an overly strenuous first race, as you shall see.

Having some idea of which way the second-time starters are likely to go is vital. The past performances of this year's 426 Triple Crown nominees provide a wealth of information to players seeking out reliable patterns of development among the best of the breed.

A rudimentary examination of their first-out Beyer Speed Figures yields some insight about what to expect next time. The key indicator is how high a Beyer Figure the horse ran first out. The higher the debut figure, the less likely it is to improve, at least right away. This is logical, perhaps elementary, because a horse that starts off with a 29 obviously has more room for improvement than one who comes out and runs a 99, but it is an important consideration nevertheless.

Based on the Triple Crown nominees with the requisite data, the lines of demarcation based on the Beyer Figures were pretty clear. I divided the horses into three categories: second-timers who improved by at least 5 points; second-timers who essentially ran the same, differing plus or minus by 4 points or less; and second-timers who regressed by at least 5 points. At the three different levels, here are the results:

Debut Beyer 70 or lower: The 177 horses who met this requirement were strong candidates to improve.

Improved by 5 points or more: 123 (69.4 percent).

Stayed basically the same: 31 (17.5 percent).

Regressed by 5 or more points: 23 (12.9 percent).

Debut Beyer 80 or higher: The 36 horses that reached this level first out were far less likely to improve and far more likely to regress.

Improved by 5 points or more: 4 (11.1 percent).

Stayed basically the same: 11 (30.5 percent).

Regressed by 5 points or more: 21 (58.3 percent).

Debut Beyer 90 or higher: Only 14 runners reached this rarified air right out of the box. The effort seemed to exact a heavy toll.

Improved by 5 points or more: 1 (7 percent).

Stayed basically the same: 4 (28.5 percent).

Regressed by 5 points or more: 9 (64.2 percent).

It sounds counterintuitive, but horses that run a 90 or better first time out should be avoided unless they are in a spot where they can bounce and still win. Even then, exercise caution. The average decline was 25 points, a staggering amount. At the least, these big-figure debut horses should not often be relied upon to anchor multi-race exotic plays. In fact, these volatile second-time starters are prime candidates to blow up and set up a potential bonanza for those in the know.