09/14/2008 11:00PM

Reading between the lines

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While we are in the midst of the late-season assault on Breeders' Cup prep races, horseplayers everywhere still continue their own assault on the hundreds of maiden, claiming, and allowance races that dominate every racing card in America.

The battle with the mutuel machines is fought by making horse-by-horse comparisons, as well as through new tools such as Formulator Web that make sophisticated handicapping research easier than it used to be.

That notwithstanding, it is sometimes useful for players to take a closer look at standard past performance data for hidden meanings that can point out a more potent contender than might seem reasonable on first review.

Consider for instance, the subtle but powerful clues found in the past performances of Vocabulary in a $10,000 claiming race at Arlington Park on Sept. 6. Vocabulary, claimed for $5,000 at Arlington on Aug. 6, was being entered back in a similar nonwinners-of-two lifetime for twice the claiming price his new trainer, Chris Dorris, had paid to get him.

On first review the horse looks to be only a marginal contender given his okay second in the $5K claimer. Moreover, Dorris did not have a dazzling record at Arlington, with only 1 victory, 9 seconds, and 11 thirds from 81 attempts. That's a glorious 1.2 win percentage for the summer-long meet. Yet, there was slightly more to this story presented by some of the statistical data staring us in the face.

Looking below the PPs, we can see that Dorris actually had a serviceable winning history with a small sample of newly claimed horses. Despite his solo win from 81 attempts at Arlington in 2008, Dorris had won with 2 of his 7 previous claims over the last few seasons for a positive return on investment of $3.37.

Likewise, while scanning over to the far right on the same line of statistical info, there was another positive ROI to be found: Dorris and his chosen jockey for this Sept. 6 race - Victor Lebron - previously had hooked up for a win in just two prior collaborations for a $5.90 ROI, obviously the result of a longshot score.

In other words, Dorris's relatively weak trainer stats for the Arlington meet (that did however include 21 in-the-money finishes), were counterpunched by the positive "first claim" stat. The somewhat obscure, yet positive jockey-trainer stat also seemed to suggest that a much better effort was forthcoming from this seemingly marginal contender.

The net result?

Vocabulary won the 1 1/16-mile race on Polytrack and paid $17.60, giving Dorris his third win in eight tries with a newly claimed horse. Moreover, the combination of Dorris and Lebron left the track that day with two wins from only three collaborations in the past few seasons, a statistic that should jump off the page the next time this combination of facts and stats show up in a Dorris-trained claimer.

Sometimes looking deeply into the past performances is the only way a player will give credibility to a longshot contender such as Vocabulary. But it also can pay dividends when you spot a hidden flaw in a betting favorite.

For an example, carefully consider the past performances for Judiciary, the 9-5 betting favorite in the second race at Belmont on Sept. 12.

Judiciary, trained by low-profile Roger Horgan, was entered in this six-furlong $25,000 maiden claiming sprint for New York-bred fillies and mares six weeks after a moderate fourth-place finish in a $35,000 maiden claimer at Saratoga. The Saratoga outing was Judiciary's second consecutive race at that reduced $35K level after seven failed tries with non-claiming maiden fillies, five of them against statebred competition.

Looking at the competition, Judiciary still brought into the race generally higher Beyer Speed Figures for all of her races compared with all other opponents except for Shirley Law. Shirley Law also had flaws that made her appear suspect. She had lost ground in every one of her seven prior races at four different distances and had only worked once publicly at Suffolk Downs since earning a paltry 27 Beyer Speed Figure in a longer maiden race at Saratoga on July 24, her worst career performance.

Somehow and for reasons that escape me, Shirley Law was bet down to 2-1 without deserving mutuel support from anyone hoping to show a profit in this game.

Going back to Judiciary, who by contrast must have looked like a cinch to finally graduate against such a weak, overbet rival and others with virtually no substantial credentials, there were a few hidden flaws that were only visible to those who looked a bit deeper than her recent Beyer Figs and seemingly sensible drop to the $25K maiden claiming level.

For one thing, the mere fact that Judiciary was in for a $35K tag twice and went unclaimed was disturbing given that she had cost $150,000 at the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale. A horse being discounted to that degree with no takers indicates she made no positive physical impression on any trainer or owner looking for a serviceable New York-bred.

For another negative, Judiciary had disappointed before, having lost twice as the wagering favorite during the spring, but the most glaring negative was subtly hinted at in the suddenly sparse workout line.

Note that Judiciary had only one slow workout during the six-week gap since her last start when she had been on a regular schedule of races and workouts in June and July. For a horse selling relatively cheaply, for a horse that had struggled to be competitive against statebred maiden claimers, the lack of recent training activity strongly suggested that no improvement would accompany this latest drop in class.

So why bet her at 9-5?

While the ultimate longshot winner of this race - Ocala Judge - might not have been an easy selection even with blinkers on and a very recent change in trainers to John Campo Jr. by owner Paraneck Stable. (Paraneck has changed trainers several times during the past decade and has a history of getting its newly appointed trainers off to good starts.)

Notwithstanding the obscure credentials of the winner, this weak maiden claiming field did invite closer inspection and potential play in the multi-race exotics simply because the two betting favorites seemed no better than any horse in the field. In the modern racetrack game such information should spark interest amongst players seeking to cash in on the lucrative betting options. For it is just as important to look for subtle flaws in the past performances to discount or throw out probable betting favorites as it is to spot subtle reasons to buy into a logical, potential longshot play.