05/27/2014 3:54PM

Pandolfo: Handicapping layoffs and regression


This spring, we've already seen a lot of 3-year-olds come off the bench and win at first asking. Here's what to look for with these returning colts and fillies. Obviously, it's a good sign if the horse qualified well. But not all of the horses that win are going to show sharp qualifiers. Some trainers have the horse trained down and ready to win, and the qualifying race is a mere formality.

Many of the horses that have won off the layoff have been dropping in class. Because of the tempting sire stakes money, many horses are raced over their heads as 2-year-olds. All the horse has to do is finish in the top 5 often enough, and it can earn quite a bit of money, even if it doesn't win.

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When these horses return as a 3-year-old, many move into their proper condition, which may be NW1 or NW2. And, most horses will mature between their 2- and 3-year-old seasons. This is particularly true of the horses that were not stars. The precocious 2-year-olds don't always improve that much. But most horses will improve.

Many of these 3-year-olds that return are in a great situation. They are bigger and faster than they were last year. And, they're taking a significant drop in class from a stakes race to a race with limited winners or maidens. Trainer Tony Alagna has quality young horses, and he's brought several of them back ready to win. Veteran trainer Erv Miller has a history of success with returnees.

These returning horses create an interesting handicapping puzzle because you can't always rate them off of their prior form, or final times. You have to project improvement. Because of that, some of the horses that returned to win were good value bets.

But it works both ways. In certain instances, you have to project a regression. Harness horses seem to bounce, or regress, more often in today's sport than they did years ago. A recent case was Wake Up Peter. This horse was sold over the winter and returned for this 4yo season in the Ray Remmen (trainer Larry Remmen) barn.

Last year, Wake Up Peter was blanked in 19 starts while facing the top colts in the sport. This year he already has 7 wins. On April 19 at the Meadowlands, Wake Up Peter raced in the Whata Baron Final and went a monstrous mile without cover. He lost by a head to the 2-5 favorite Captive Audience in a mile that went in 1:48 3/5. It was a great race; both horses put on a show.

In his next start, which was on May 3, Wake Up Peter figured to regress. He went off at 6-5, an indication that many bettors expected a bounce, because in that field he should have been shorter odds. He finished third, pacing in 1:50, a second and two-fifths slower than his peak effort. The people that bet on him obviously don't understand the bounce theory, and they made a bad bet. He did come back to win a week later. But the time to expect a regression is the race after a huge effort, especially if the fractions and final time are exceptional.

With California Chrome gunning for the elusive Triple Crown 10 days from now, thoroughbred handicappers will be analyzing his speed figures to see if he's a candidate for a regression. In the Preakness, California Chrome ran about the same race he always does. It wasn't a grueling effort, so there's no reason to expect him to bounce.

But, I doubt that it will be easy. Every time a horse wins the first two legs, people underestimate the competition. You'll hear people say that it's a weak crop, and all that. There are several lightly raced colts in the Belmont, and anyone of them could step up and run the race of its life. These young horses have plenty of room to improve.

The last 12 horses that won the first two legs didn't win the Triple Crown. One, I'll Have Another, was scratched, but the other 11 just got beat. I almost always bet against it. Out of the 11 that lost, the only one I picked to win was Smarty Jones, who got nipped on the wire by Birdstone. My theory is that it takes a great horse to win it. That's true, but a bit of a misnomer, because many great horses have failed, so being a great horse doesn't make it a sure thing.

If you use Bloodhorse Magazine's Top 100 horses as a reference point, look at some of the greatest horses of all time that won the first two legs and lost the Belmont (I've put the horses all-time ranking in parenthesis):  Spectacular Bid (10), Sunday Silence (31), Alysheba (42), Northern Dancer (43), Silver Charm (63), Carry Back (83). And, there were many great horses that won two legs other than the first two, including Man O War (1), Damascus (16), and Nashua (24). Even Man O War, the greatest of all time, a horse that won 20 races in 21 starts, couldn't win the Triple Crown. The other horses and riders aren't going to lay down. It will be a tough race. California Chrome has his work cut out for him. It won't be easy, but, it'll be exciting.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.