03/03/2004 12:00AM

Similar patterns, far different projections


BOSTON - At first I felt this need to apologize. Of course, I really had no idea to whom I should offer any such apology. And I didn't even know if there was actually any real need for it.

During last weekend's Handicapping Expo at Paris Las Vegas, I fell victim to a sort of form-cycle obsession. On Friday morning I participated in a session on "Form Cycle Analysis," along with expert contrarian handicapper Mark Cramer.

My job was to explain the basic contours of figure cycling, and to make the case that, although it might be somewhat limited in its application, looking out for these cycles could still be a powerful tool for profit. One of my examples involved a horse named Fonz's at Santa Anita.

Fonz's ran in a seven-furlong allowance race on Feb. 21. His recent form had the classic contours of speed-figure cycling. He had returned to the races on Dec. 18 after nearly a seven-month layoff. He ended up in a fierce battle that day, losing by only a half-length, and earning a Beyer Figure of 103 - a lifetime best. In his next race he ran a figure of only 64 on the turf, and then improved to a 94 on Jan. 24. If he could return to anything like his earlier 103 he was a must-use.

The other logical figure horse in the race, Unfurl the Flag, had earned a 103 in his next-to-last effort - with a throw-out grass race in his last. They looked like the only horses who could reasonably be expected to run triple-digit Beyers. Unfurl the Flag went off at 4-1. Fonz's was 8-1.

Unfurl the Flag ran a huge race, officially tying Spectacular Bid's track record for seven furlongs. He beat Fonz's by 4 1/2 lengths, and it was another six lengths back to the rest of the field. The exacta paid $82.80 for $2.

Coming only a few days before the Expo, and involving such a newsworthy race, Fonz's performance was the perfect teaching tool.

Unfortunately, on the day after my presentation a filly named Miss Cyprus appeared in the fifth at Santa Anita. She had certain superficial characteristics in common with Fonz's. I loved Fonz's. I hated Miss Cyprus. And that's why I felt an urge to apologize.

As I began to study Miss Cyprus's past performances, I started to feel uncomfortable. The longer I examined her record, the more my discomfort turned to serious distress. What if some of the Expo's paying customers took the lessons of Fonz's form and applied them to Miss Cyprus? The inevitable financial loss would certainly reflect poorly on my presentation about cycling theory. While I had gone out of my way to stress that nothing is ever automatic in this game, and that you always have to handicap across the full spectrum of variables, there really wasn't enough time at our Expo session to go into any detail on many of the finer nuances involved.

The horse in question, Miss Cyprus, had earned an 88 Beyer on Jan. 2 after a long layoff. Just as in Fonz's case, that number was also a lifetime best. She had then bounced down to a 63 in her next start, and then improved to a 74 while stretching out to a mile. Could you reasonably expect her to continue improving back towards that 88? The answer had to be an unequivocal no. Miss Cyprus had earned that 88 while loose on the lead. But today's race was absolutely loaded with brilliant speed horses. Her tactical situation was completely hopeless. No sensible handicapper could project anything like another 88 under these extremely negative conditions.

Beyond the similarity in their figure patterns, Miss Cyprus was as different from Fonz's as she could be. And she did indeed run horribly. She was easily outpaced to the early lead and never made any impact at all.

Now, I know that all this anxiety was probably wasted emotion on my part. I was a teacher long enough to understand that your words of wisdom are seldom eagerly absorbed by students and taken out into the world for immediate application.

If there were any players who shook their heads cynically at the burial of Miss Cyprus, I never heard a word from them. Most fortuitously, the cause for my unease disappeared in a flash on the day of the Expo contest. Two clearly identifiable cyclers produced two of the bigger winners in the contest: Sweet Laural ($27.20) in Gulfstream's second race and Call Me Moe ($13.80) in the 10th. They put me in the hunt. Whether they helped any other Expo attendees - well, I couldn't say. Just as with Miss Cyprus, I never heard from anyone about those horses, either.

Alas, contests are tough, and, given the crowded fields and high level of competition, happy endings are reserved for a very fortunate few. Only the top five finishers out of 120 entrants qualified for prize money at the Paris Expo. I finished seventh. But I got the nagging case of Miss Cyprus out of my system, and I enjoyed the satisfaction which comes from proving out one of my favorite approaches in live competition against some of the best handicappers in America. Not such bad rewards, when you think about it - especially for an old teacher.