08/10/2005 12:00AM

Play the percentages: Pro and con


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - Taking note of percentages is an important part of trying to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

If a trainer has a high win percentage in any given situation, his chances should usually be upgraded, and vice versa. However, what does one do with statistical categories that conflict with each other?

For instance, if a trainer possessing good statistics with first-time starters sends one out by a low-percentage debut sire (less than 10 percent), that runner should be viewed with some skepticism, unless the horse has a series of eye-catching works.

Jim Mazur, the author of numerous meet-specific guides that feature trainer, running style, and post position information, believes that conflicting statistics require some scrutiny of the odds for live money. He said one negative angle is usually enough for him to avoid a horse.

"My experience has been that, more often than not, the horse will fail because of the negative angle," Mazur said. "The one positive is not enough to carry the negative."

An excellent example of this came in last Sunday's third race at Woodbine, a maiden special for 2-year-olds, which was made up exclusively of first-time starters.

Pocket Pair, a daughter of good debut sire Forest Wildcat, was sent out by a trainer who was 0 for 35 with first-timers since the beginning of 2004. She finished third in a six-horse field, an effort that should serve as a good tightener for her next outing.

One low-percentage play I've noticed over the years is that first-timers from mares that have been poor producers are throwouts, unless they have lots of quick works, or a successful debut trainer.

And there are many examples of champion racemares who were dreadful producers, such as Princess Rooney, Lady's Secret, and Lauries Dancer.

Princess Rooney, who won the inaugural Breeders' Cup Distaff in 1984, had eight foals, the best of whom placed in two minor stakes.

Lady's Secret, the 1986 Horse of the Year and a daughter of leading broodmare sire Secretariat, failed to produce even a stakes-placed runner from 11 foals, while being bred to such good horses as Mr. Prospector, Danzig, and Seattle Slew.

Lauries Dancer, the 1971 Canadian Horse of the Year, only managed to throw a pair of cheap winners from 10 foals.

The lesson is clear. If a high-profile mare has thrown nothing but mediocre or inept runners, avoid her offspring, since they are often overbet in the early stages of their career.

Mazur believes statistics are a key part of the handicapping puzzle, but they should not be the sole basis for making a significant wager.

"I don't play them blindly," Mazur explained. "I look at the horse, and see how he stacks up against the rest of the field. If he's hopelessly overmatched, I probably wouldn't touch him, or I might go very light on him and have some fun with it."

Horses who rarely find the winner's circle are obviously poor percentage plays for the top spot, while those who score with some degree of regularity are usually worth a second look.

Mazur said he has had success playing horses coming off a win, if the price is right. Even horses who took an eternity to graduate can fit the bill.

"An angle that I really like is last-out winners that get ignored next time out," Mazur said. "One of the really good ones is a maiden that wins and moves into open company, but let's say it's a nonwinners-of-two lifetime, in which case they all only have one win, so he's not really outclassed. That's a situation where the horse can get ignored."

Mazur believes that certain trainer patterns, such as how they do as a meeting progresses, can remain valid for years.

"Trainers who win early at a meet tend to repeat that pattern over and over again," Mazur said. "They get geared up to do it, and they probably don't realize that they're doing it. They just have them ready.

"Of course, the longer the meet, the more diluted it gets," he continued. "At Woodbine, you have a first-start category, a second-start category, and then everybody falls into third-start category after that. It tends to play out better at a shorter meeting, like Saratoga."

Scrutinizing both high- and low-percentage situations should be a prerequisite for any serious horseplayer.