01/06/2005 12:00AM

Slop often produces a wash

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Benoit & Associates
Areyoutalkintome scores easily in the El Conejo over a muddy track.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Picking winners has not been difficult at Santa Anita, even while nearly 11 inches of rain produced six consecutive off tracks entering the Thursday card. More rain is on the way.

Despite the soaking, favorites won 22 of 50 races on wet tracks as horses and handicappers adjusted to the conditions. Eventually, the sun will come out and the track will return to fast. When it does, horseplayers will face the knotty issue of interpreting form that was established on a wet track. There are no easy solutions.

When handicapping for a fast track, how exactly do you interpret a horse's form when his last start occurred on a wet track?

"I don't think you can," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "I wouldn't put much stock in a horse's [performance] in the mud - whether they ran poorly or great. I'd draw a line through it and go on to the next race."

Sometimes, form evaluation is that easy. Trainer Richard Mandella cautions there is no all-encompassing rule.

"It's a one-by-one deal; it depends on the whole scenario," Mandella said. "You can have horses freak out in the mud, but they're not going to do it again. Horses don't get faster in the mud, they just sustain their ability. Just because one horse beat another horse on a muddy track doesn't mean he'll beat him on a fast track."

That will be a key question Jan. 29 when Areyoutalkintome and McCann's Mojave meet in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint. The two stakes winners met in a sea of mud Sunday in the El Conejo Handicap, and Areyoutalkintome won clear, while McCann's Mojave, the 9-5 favorite, struggled in fifth. Does it mean Areyoutalkintome is better, or did the wet-fast track render the outcome irrelevant?

Areyoutalkintome already was a stakes winner on a fast track - the El Conejo merely proved he is back. McCann's Mojave's form remains unclear, however, because he was returning from a layoff. He may have run poorly because of mud, needing a race, or having lost a step. That seems the case with the El Conejo's last-place finisher, Bluesthestandard, trained by Ted West and his son Ted H. West.

The senior West is sometimes puzzled after a muddy race.

"When a horse runs good, you can't give him full credit because you don't know whether it was the racetrack that made him run good, or not," he said. "If they run bad, you don't know if that was the reason. Good or bad, you can't evaluate a horse over this track.

"You can make an excuse for a horse, but once you start making more than one excuse, maybe you're kidding yourself."

Recent subpar speed figures earned by Bluesthestandard suggest his poor effort in the El Conejo merely reflects his declining form. Then there are good horses such as McCann's Mojave and Dream of Summer, who ran poorly in wet-track comebacks. The culprit was either mud or waning ability.

While horsemen can forgive, bettors must hold horses to a higher standard - particularly at low odds. McCann's Mojave and Dream of Summer should improve on a fast track, but expectations of a return to peak form following one substandard prep is a giant leap of faith. There is no guarantee that any horse returning from a layoff will ever reproduce previous achievements. Good handicapping requires skepticism.

Bettors actually have it pretty easy compared to horsemen, who are stuck with the same horses. Bettors, on the other hand, can be as fickle as they want. When the odds offered on a particular horse are unacceptably low, a bettor can simply shop for another contender at a more attractive price. The strategy is proper, rain or shine.

The rate of winning favorites this meet suggests that finding winners in the slop is no great secret. Yet, as Lukas said: "There are horses that have an affinity for a muddy track - a nifty horse that knows where his feet are will run an excellent race in the mud. Then put him on a fast track and he's compromised."

Mandella agrees: "You can't just run fast, you have to have agility, too. You get horses with big, flat feet, and they don't like mud much. They just slide. Little mule-footed horses don't slip [forward]. I think it's why you look for small feet instead of big feet if you're a handicapper. Guys in the old days used to stand by the paddock and watch."

Trainers utilize a variety of shoes, including jar caulks, mud nails, and hind stickers. Jar caulks have a raised cleat 1 1/2 to two inches from the heel that prevents horses from sliding when their front feet hit the ground. Hind stickers are used on the rear. Mud nails are a single nail with a small cleat for extra traction.

"My preference is to not use anything," Mandella said, and though he does use wet-track shoes, he believes "if they handle the mud they'll handle it" either way.

He ran Espy on Jan. 2 in a race scheduled for turf. Rain forced it to a wet-fast main track, but Espy was wearing Queen's plates shoes designed for turf. It was too late to change.

"I couldn't take them off because she has no foot to nail onto. She would be lame from shoeing. I just had to hope she would handle the mud, and she did. If you ran most of them that way it wouldn't matter. It's in our heads. We all think they need all that [stuff]. I just don't think it makes any difference."

While horsemen struggle with shoeing issues, bettors soon will face the dilemma of analyzing a horse's chances to win a fast-track race based on wet-track form.

"I just think you give a little less credit for a mud win than a normal-circumstance win, unless it ties in to the rest of the form," Mandella said.

Handicapping is based largely on a horse's performances under similar conditions. And when the Santa Anita track returns to being fast, horses must be analyzed from previous, and recent, fast-track efforts.

"You have to look at the whole picture, you can't look at one race," Mandella said. And when betting on a horse who ran poorly last time in mud, he suggests it be trained by "somebody that you have confidence in that he wouldn't run if things weren't right."