05/13/2007 11:00PM

Small stable makes some big hits by making subtle changes

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CHICAGO - Totals of 68 wins and $1.65 million in purse earnings - that's a so-so two-month span of time for an operation like that of Steve Asmussen. Those also happen to represent the career totals for Andy Hansen, another trainer of Thoroughbreds. But horseplayers don't earn any bonuses for siding with the Goliaths of the game, and it's getting cozy with under-the-radar barns like that of Hansen's that can produce a real windfall.

Hansen, a 44-year-old former jockey and a native of Omaha, Neb., definitely isn't going to be in the hunt for the country's leading trainer by wins, earnings, or any other measure. He operates a stable that typically numbers about 20 and races pretty much year-round in Chicago. Hansen took a handful of stock to Oaklawn Park to pass Chicago's dark period this past winter, but quickly was back in action here when the Hawthorne winter-spring meet got into full swing.

Hansen's overall numbers in major trainer categories such as dirt and turf, sprints and routes, all produce returns on investment that fall below the $2 threshold, but his isn't the kind of barn you just bet on blindly and hope to grind out a profit. It's in the little niches and crannies that Hansen seems to thrive - the Thursday afternoon never-won-two claimer at Hawthorne where he will strike with a 20-1 shot that's subtly improving, or has undergone some kind of between-starts messing around.

"There's just certain things you can tinker with going race to race, and I do a lot of that," Hansen said. "I've had pretty good luck taking blinkers off, or just cutting [the blinkers] back."

Hansen's blinker stats come from a small sample, but blinkers-on, first-blinkers, and blinkers-off all have produced a couple Hansen bombers. Three of the last nine horses he has taken blinkers off have won, and the Hansen ROI in this small segment is $8.72. And there are other areas like this: a $12.20 ROI winning with two of his last five first-claimed horses. A handsome $3.91 ROI with horses making their first start in his barn. A $3.15 ROI with horses turning back from routes to a sprint, and that from a 27-horse sample that has produced only 15 percent winners, meaning many of the winners offered healthy odds. And finally, a $2.08 ROI in Hansen's last 98 starters in claiming races - a number that definitely connotes competence.

Hansen started working the track at Ak-Sar-Ben when he still was in high school, and eventually took out his license as a jockey, riding the Nebraska circuit and galloping horses for trainer Don Von Hemel over the winter at Oaklawn. Branching out to ride at Tampa Bay Downs one year, Hansen found himself caught in a pickle when the guy there he thought would be his agent tried to farm him out to the Birmingham racetrack in Alabama.

"I was just looking to try and make some money to get back to Nebraska," Hansen said.

That was when Hansen met trainer Gene Cilio, who liked the way Hansen galloped horses, and offered him steady work. Cilio operated one of the bigger stables in Chicago, and Hansen eventually became one of two assistant trainers in his barn, taking over some of the Cilio horses after Cilio's death several years ago. Now, Hansen has mainly younger horses, many of them Illinois-breds, and mixes in the occasional claim for an owner here or there. He still gallops much of his own stock - "I have five to get on tomorrow morning," Hansen said during a recent interview - and claims to follow old-school training methods handed down through Cilio and, even more so, Von Hemel.

Hansen clearly has learned how to handle a cheaper horse, and how to get a horse without a lot of natural ability to maximize the talent he has when put into the right spot at the right time. He doesn't push 2-year-olds, and the 2-year-olds he gets aren't usually especially talented. And even when one of his horses is feeling good, Hansen said he tends to work long and slow, the way Von Hemel suggested, rather than short and fast.

In other words, Hansen's horses don't usually tout themselves. A bettor often has to dig deeper through their form to find them. It can be worth the time.