10/01/2007 12:00AM

The power of observation

EmailHorseplayers often think that handicapping is solely based on comparing past performance data and other statistical references. There are speed figure handicappers, pace handicappers, class handicappers, and handicappers who combine these different disciplines and supplement them with trip notes, trainer patterns, and jockey-trainer relationships.

There also are players who appreciate the nuances of wet track and turf course breeding and I am sure there will be many in the next few years who will build their games around the emerging trends inherent in synthetic tracks.

All this is good, of course, but, one of the most overlooked aspects of handicapping has to do with watching the way individual horses perform - as in taking note of any bad habit that can affect a horse's ability to deliver his best.

Such insight can be of huge import in post-race analysis and at its best, can be a reason to bet against a heavily backed favorite that just might encounter the situation that could expose its weakness.

A few of these situations repeatedly surface. Some, but not all may be detected with insightful interpretations of past performance lines; others come from visual clues. Some examples:

* Needs a clear lead, or will quit when challenged.

Be wary of a horse that needs a clear lead and quits whenever he doesn't get it. If today's race promises a duel, this horse is one of the least likely to win. Moreover, when the race has been run, it may be easy to explain a bad fade to the rear of the pack. Sometimes blinkers on will help a horse like this, but not always. Sometimes the horse simply acts as if the race is over when he is unable to remain in front.

* Needs to be "covered up" to uncork a strong rally.

Some horses do not race kindly when in the clear during the early stages of their races. Some horses need to be placed behind horses, or "covered up" before they are angled out for their best late run. This pattern often is associated with European imports who are trained to hold themselves in reserve when kept in the middle of a pack. But, there are many American-based horses that do not fire their best unless handled in a similar manner. To detect this, one must see the race in person, or have a good look at it through high quality video replays.

* Does not like to be shipped and invariably leaves his best race back home.

Lava Man is a notorious example of this phenomenon, having turned in a series of sub-par performances whenever he has shipped out of California. But there are plenty of examples that have made no similar impact on the national racing stage.

Some do not hold their form when shipped from Belmont Park to Aqueduct across town; or from Santa Anita to Hollywood. Others fall apart when shipped a few hundred miles and some only have problems when they have been shipped on a long van ride, or via jet cargo plane. The only way to know which horse is affected by any of these shipping issues is to read between the past performance lines and/or pay attention to comments made by trainers in post-race interviews on TV and or comments that appear in Daily Racing Form and other newspapers. "Barn notes" posted on racetrack web sites also can be useful sources for such insights.

* Does not react well when pinned inside of rivals through the stretch.

A case in point may surprise many readers, but this is the Achilles' heel for the high-class filly Rags to Riches, who finished second as the odds-on favorite while racing inside of Lear's Princess in the Gazelle Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 15.

Losing the race was bad enough, but trainer Todd Pletcher's prized 3-year-old filly came back to the barn with a minor fracture to her right front pastern.

While not career threatening - or so say the vets and the people involved with this exceptional filly - we are talking about a large-bodied horse who has endured minor issues that kept her out of several races and workouts during the summer. Obviously, if she heals well, it still will be several months before Rags to Riches will actively be pointed for a race in 2008.

For sure, Rags to Riches goes to the sidelines having already clinched the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old fillies, no matter who wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff in her absence. But, when and if she returns, she will be a high- profile horse that may never reach the level of performance we saw from her on that special day in June at the 1 1/2-mile distance she was bred to love.

Moreover, from what I saw of Rags to Riches during her excellent career, she exposed a vulnerability that may haunt her, a bad habit she revealed long before the Gazelle.

Rags to Riches does not appreciate being held inside of horses. Never did and probably never will. The reason I say this with conviction comes from personal observation, the kind of scrutiny I am suggesting players utilize to improve a neglected aspect of handicapping.

In late April, when Pletcher's Kentucky Derby prospect Circular Quay had the outside in their team workouts at Keeneland, Rags to Riches did not change leads properly and never was completely comfortable. Among other things seen in those drills, the large-bodied filly dwarfed her pint-sized workmate, but nevertheless turned her head outwards more than once, losing her smooth, easy stride.

This slight, but meaningful loss of her professional demeanor, allowed the undersized male stablemate to edge her in those workouts, which to my eyes concealed her form, or raised some doubt about her fitness for the Kentucky Oaks.

Those doubts were completely dispelled in the Oaks, the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Racing outside in that prestigious nine-furlong race, Rags to Riches was a completely different, thoroughly dominating performer. The fillies in that field, including her Grade-1 winning stablemate Octave, never had a chance against her that day.

Five weeks later, racing outside of Preakness winner Curlin in the Belmont stakes, Rags to Riches turned in an exceptionally game performance, one of the best by a 3-year-old since the great Ruffian was so dominant in 1974.

Perhaps it is her large body size and long stride that contributes to her aversion to being on the inside; perhaps it was a learned response from a workout or race early in her career. But whatever the reason, Rags to Riches definitely exhibited noticeable discomfort when kept inside of key rivals in important spring workouts and again in the Gazelle.

Because she was breaking from the outside post in the compact field of five, it might have been difficult to anticipate that Rags to Riches would be on the inside during the stretch run, but it was clear that she probably would make her move to the lead in the upper stretch - well before Lear's Princess.

Strictly on her two sharp second-place finishes in Grade 1 stakes at Belmont and Saratoga, Lear's Princess was a reasonable candidate to upset the favorite who had missed training and three targeted races during the summer.

Once jockey Eibar Coa made the key late move on Lear's Princess to challenge Rags to Riches from the outside in the upper stretch, the prospects for an upset increased with every stride.