02/14/2002 1:00AM

Second-time starters almost always improve

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Very exciting press box mail on Valentine's Day: Round 1 of Daily Racing Form's Kentucky Derby Futures Edition.

The first installment is always eagerly awaited by horseplayers looking to get an early line on their Derby hopefuls. I don't have the inclination to work myself into a feverish Derby lather about Pool 1, because the memory of my 2001 future-book wager, Invisible Ink, still leaves a sour taste. The main reason I look forward to the release of the first Futures Edition is because of its usefulness as a research tool.

In one convenient tabloid-size paper, the Futures Edition contains the lifetime past performances of the world's best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds. This makes it pretty simple to run annual checks on the statistical tendencies of lightly raced horses, particularly second-time starters, a subset not at all well understood by John Q. Punter.

Consider a hypothetical maiden race (see chart)

HORSEBEYERSODDS

No Value Today76 77 754-5

Imightbearunner1st start6-1

Pluggin' Along70 68 695-1

On The Improve60 66 724-1

Has No Chance43 21 3020-1

Dead Onthe Board1st start5-1

Tip O'The Iceberg5815-1

Who is the most likely winner? All else being equal, it's the odds-on favorite, No Value Today, who hardly seems worth backing due to exposed form.

Who - and this is important - is the best bet at the odds? It's the second-time starter, Tip O'the Iceberg. The point is crucial for bettors hoping to reap profits from maiden races.

If the favorite runs his usual figure in the mid-70's, Tip O'the Iceberg must improve approximately 20 points to seriously contend. According to this year's Futures Edition (and the ones that preceded it) handicappers are well advised to take the plunge when offered 15-1 on propositions such as Tip O'the Iceberg. That's because, when it comes to second-time starters, a 20-point improvement is not at all far-fetched. More specifically, it's a little better than a one-in-six chance, according to this year's statistical sample.

For the purposes of this study, nearly half of the 405 Triple Crown nominees were eliminated from consideration. A total of 233 horses began their careers in North America and recorded a Beyer Speed Figure in each of their first two starts. Those who received no figure for three-furlong and 4 1/2-furlong dashes were excluded, as were, obviously, Europeans, unraced horses, and those with just one lifetime start.

The 233 qualifiers were divided into five categories:

* Those whose figure didn't appreciably change, within three Beyer points plus or minus of their debut.

* Those who posted a four-to-nine point improvement second out.

* Those who posted a four-to-nine point decline.

* Those who improved 10 or more points.

* Those who declined 10 or more points.

* Finally, a subset of the big improvers, who improved 20 or more points.

The results:

No change (+/- 3 pts):17%

Improved 4-to-9 pts:23%

Improved 10+ pts:39%

Improved 20+ pts:18%

Declined 4-to-9 pts:10%

Declined 10+ pts:11%

Zeroing in on the 23 individual betting interests in the future wager, there were 21 who qualified for purposes of this study (Johannesburg and King's Consul did not). Of those 21:

* 12 improved by 10+ points (five by 20-plus points).

* Seven improved four to nine points.

* One declined four to nine points.

* One posted no change.

This is wager-value material in every-day maiden races when an obvious figure horse is being pounded at the windows. Look at the second-time starters, and remember:

* The likeliest occurrence is a big forward move.

* Second-likeliest occurrence is a smaller forward move.

* Third-likeliest is no appreciable change.

* Least likely is a decline.

Of course, none of this ever takes place in a vacuum. Many things can affect your thinking when it comes to these second-time starter percentages, such as:

* The higher the debut figure, the less likely a big jump will take place.

* A big jump is also less likely for horses stepping up in class into tougher pace scenarios, as with debut maiden-claiming winners who are now facing entry-level allowance types.

A big jump may also be less likely to occur when the horse is from a no-win barn, or from a barn that sends out a low percentage of winning second-time starters.

Above all else, always remember that form, and the Beyers, are especially volatile early in horses' careers. The readiness and willingness to anticipate these big changes is a good mindset to develop, especially if your wagering competition is betting on the status quo.