07/23/2015 1:28PM

Pandolfo: Last race handicapping and the bounce theory

Derick Giwner
JL Cruze's Hambletonian Maturity effort proved the "bounce theory" has some holes.

One of the key elements of handicapping is how much emphasis to put on a horse's last race. The last race can tip off either improving or declining form. However, sometimes horses that have been racing well do turn in a subpar performance but still win their next start. That's why, generally speaking, I like to analyze a horse's last three starts. Of course, sometimes what looks like a subpar effort on paper was actually just a bad trip.

With the higher class horses, a regression is normally a bad sign. Good horses go fast, and to compete, a horse has to be in top form.

Artspeak, last year's champion 2-year-old pacer, was in sharp form coming into the Meadowlands Pace eliminations on July 11. They decided to add Lasix in that start.  Artspeak sat the pocket behind a slow pace and faded to 4th in the stretch. It was a surprisingly lackluster effort and a clear regression for the talented colt. In the Meadowlands Pace final, Artspeak, racing with Lasix for the second time, didn't leave the gate, ended up 4th over and was never a factor. The bettors, noticing the regression in his last race, made Artspeak the 10-1 fourth choice, which was lower than I graded him, and they got it right. It will be interesting to see if trainer Tony Alagna takes Artspeak off Lasix, as he raced much better without it.

[SARATOGA HARNESS: Video analysis for the Gerrity + Pick Four ticket]

Let's analyze the performance of another champion, 4-year-old trotter Father Patrick, who was the divisional champion at 2 and 3 years old. In his first start of the year, Father Patrick won the $150,000 Maxie Lee at Harrah's Philly. He lost his next two starts, but he raced gamely finishing second behind JL Cruze. But then came the Graduate Final on July 11. Father Patrick left the gate, but on the first turn he threw his head to the side sharply, twice. To me, it looked like something was bothering him. You could see it wasn't going to be his night. He battled back into contention like the champion he is but faded in the stretch. It was without a doubt a clear regression for this great horse.

In his next start, the 1-1/8-mile Hambletonian Maturity, Father Patrick was sent off as the 5-2 third choice in the betting and was essentially eased up as he finished last beaten by 21 lengths.  Fortunately, Father Patrick is in good hands, trained by Jimmy Takter, one of the all-time greats. If he can't figure out what's bothering the great trotter, no one can.

Here we have two champions who both showed clear and obvious regressions in their last start. And off these regressions they had to face the best horses in their class. To win at a high class level these horses have to be feeling their best. Yes, the last race must be carefully evaluated. And when a top quality horse shows a clear regression in form, with no visible excuse, tread carefully.

Another champion that came up short Saturday night is 3-year-old filly trotter Mission Brief, who is struggling right now. Mission Brief set a modest pace but got caught late and lost by a nose. If she was at her best, she would've have pulled away from those fillies easily. Horses are athletes and like all athletes, they're not always at the top of their game.

Another factor that handicappers look at regarding a horse's last race is the bounce theory. This is the theory that a horse will regress off a "top" performance. Well, again, looking at last Saturday's Meadowlands card, there were three potential "bounce" candidates. One was Odds On Equuleus, who was on my list of horses to watch. In his last start he had blasted out of the gate from post 10, sat the pocket and drew off to an easy win while pacing in a career best 1:47 4/5. Saturday he stepped up from a NW11000 to a particularly tough NW15500 field and was a strong wire to wire winner paying $13.20, and he paced in 1:47 3/5, taking another career best mark. Apparently instead of bouncing off his career top, it gave him a confidence boost. Sometimes a win off a drop in class does have that effect on horses.

Another bounce prospect was JL Cruze, who was coming off a world record 1:49 4/5 mile, the first sub 1:50 mile ever by a trotter on a one mile track. JL Cruze trotted some tough miles during the brutal winter months and was making his 18th start of the year. But not only did he not bounce, he set another world record, his third in his last three starts! JL Cruze's owners paid $50,000 to supplement him to the $443,000 Hambletonian Maturity and boy did he make them look smart. Funny thing about JL Cruze, he usually wins by a narrow margin. He may be the type of horse that pulls himself up once he feels the wire's coming and he knows he's got his rivals measured.

Yet another bounce prospect on Saturday was Capozzo, a speedy 4-year-old pacer. In his last start on July 11 he dropped in class and set a brutally fast pace from post 7 while finishing a game second to the aforementioned Odds On Equuleus. Capozzo's final time of 1:48 in that placing was clearly the fastest effort of his career. Coming back against similar horses, Capozzo cruised on the front end, winning just as easily as Odds On Equuleus, and improved his career mark from 1:49 3/5 to 1:48. Once again, no sign of a regression. So much for the bounce theory.

Of course, all three of these horses have that all-important thing we call class. Odds On Equuleus, when he's sharp, has always been a solid Free for All type, only a notch or two below the top FFA horses. Capozzo is quick and has a touch of class that shows when he's classified properly. As for JL Cruze, he's top class all the way. Regressions off a top performance are more likely with cheaper horses that don't have that obvious class to them.

The horses that disappointed Saturday night were not the three horses coming off career best performances. The three champion horses that showed declining form are the ones that regressed and disappointed. There's a lesson to be learned there.

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.