02/23/2006 12:00AM

Recent claims often bad bets

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Whether handicapping a $40,000 claimer from Gulfstream or a $4,000 race from Beulah Park, bettors often need to make an educated guess whether a horse will improve, regress, or simply maintain his form after being claimed.

The statistics in Daily Racing Form that appear below the past performance give clues, such as listing a trainer's record over the last couple of years with first-after-claim runners. Often, however, those numbers reflect a small sample of runners - unless the trainer runs a large stable, such as Steve Asmussen.

With that in mind, I decided to track a fairly large group of more than 100 claimed horses to see how they performed in their post-claim starts. So I printed out the past performances of the 129 horses claimed from the fall meet at Churchill Downs, and examined their records over the last few months.

Due to the competitiveness and rich purses of the Churchill Downs meet, I expected to see horses claimed there go on to do well. Theoretically, a claiming owner would seemingly get more horse for the buck at Churchill, because horses have to be aggressively placed to win races at such a difficult meet.

So I found it surprising to see that that less than 10 percent came back to win their next start, even though many subsequently raced at tracks such as Turfway Park and Louisiana Downs, places deemed by many to be below Churchill in racetrack pecking order.

Through Wednesday, the numbers looked like this - 114 have returned to start, with 11 winners, 18 seconds, and 17 thirds. With average odds of 3.57-1 on the 11 winners, a $2 wager on every first-after-claim runner from the Churchill meet would have yielded an average return of $0.88.

One thing to note about the numbers - there appeared to be a disproportionate number of seconds and thirds relative to wins. So a few breaks along the way for some of those runners-up and third-place finishers, and the numbers would not have been as poor.

I am amazed the numbers came back as poorly as they did. With some high-percentage claiming trainers at Churchill - guys like Asmussen and Tom Amoss, just to name two - I would have expected an overall win mark more in the 15 to 20 percent range. Apparently, the former trainers of these claimed runners were right in many instances to race their horses for the tags for which the horses were claimed.

Even those horses that won the day they were claimed did not make for good wagers next time out. Of the 21 winners that were claimed and have returned to race, only three won, four finished second, and five ran third. The three winners started at average odds of 5-2.

What about second-after-claim runners? They fared much better, winning 18 of 97 starts, or a little less than 19 percent of their races. A group of 18 others ran second, and eight more ran third - meaning about 45 percent hit the board.

Why did they win almost twice as often? These horses were better placed - unlike in their initial post-claim starts, when many raced in higher classes because of claiming rules. Second time off the claim, some returned to their initial claim levels, and others dropped below the price for which they were purchased.

Additionally, these horses and trainers were probably more in tune with each other after having a race together.

Like first-after-claim runners, these second-after-claim runners were poor bets - though to a lesser extent. Average odds of 2.67-1 on the 18 winners would have yielded an average return of $1.36 on a $2 bet.

These results are not meant to suggest that good claims were not made. A claim is not measured strictly by immediate success. Some horses come around gradually, making steady improvement. And a handful of the claimed fillies have residual value as broodmares.

Looking beyond the Churchill meet, you also have examples of hugely successful claims. Last year's Ashland winner Sis City, who was plucked from a maiden $50,000 race at Saratoga in the summer of 2004, immediately comes to mind.

Claiming isn't necessarily bad business - it is a dream for any owner to acquire horse like Sis City - but based on the data from the Churchill meet, assuming dramatic improvement immediately following a claim appears to be bad betting, unless a trainer has a proven track record with that maneuver.