03/16/2008 11:00PM

Smart bettors learn it's worth following small stable

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It has been a long winter of discontent for New York horseplayers, both on and off the racetrack, but one of the few bright spots has been the emergence of several up-and-coming trainers.

Chief among them is Greg DiPrima, who, with 8 winners from 29 starters after saddling maiden graduate Half Moon Street on Marcho14, had a win rate on the inner track (27.5 percent) exceeded only by Steve Asmussen.

DiPrima, 36, is an overnight sensation who has been around the game for two decades.

"I started walking hots for Frank Laboccetta Sr. in 1988, spent summers at Saratoga as a teenager, that sort of thing," he recalled. "After I was done with college, I went to work for his son about eight years ago."

Frank Laboccetta Jr. was involved in a head-on collision at Saratoga in August 2006, and was subsequently found to be under the influence of heroin. As the stable was disbanded in the aftermath, DiPrima was left at a crossroads.

"I did some soul searching and decided that training horses was really what I wanted to do," he said. "I started off with four horses and picked up a few clients along the way, including Repole Stable and Richard Englander. Currently, I have 17 horses."

DiPrima went out on his own at Aqueduct's 2006-07 winter meet, and immediately made an impression by compiling a 6-2-1 record with just 14 starters, good for a return on investment of $4.49. Trainer handicappers who remembered his exploits at Saratoga last summer might have cashed in when Judge's Pride switched to the turf for the first time and wired a field of maiden sprinters at a $67.50 win mutuel. DiPrima used seven-pound apprentice Jose Bracetty on Judge's Pride that day, and put Carol Cedeno on front-running winner Ballymist here in early February. But he has also won with established journeymen riders such as Mario Pino, Eibar Coa, Mike Luzzi, Norberto Arroyo Jr., and Channing Hill.

According to 29 applicable categories in Trainer Form, DiPrima is profitable in a baker's dozen, notably first off the claim (4 for 12, $3.92 ROI) and overall with new acquisitions (8 for 22, $3.50).

Another specialty has been medium-length layoffs of 61-180 days. During a 12-day stretch in January, he sent out a trio of much-the-best winners making their first start off a layoff and trainer change: Tellitto'em ($10.60) by 17 lengths off a two-month layoff; Girl Show ($5.10) by 11 lengths off a 75-day absence; and Regal Playtime ($9.70) by five lengths off a 46-day freshening.

More recently, Mass Charles ($8.50), who had won just 1 of 19 starts, returned from a six-week break to win by nearly six lengths first off the claim.

"I'm looking for fairly consistent horses that haven't been closing the deal for whatever reason," DiPrima explained. "I'm definitely an advocate of time between starts. I want to see them on the track for at least two weeks before I run them."

As winter gives way to spring in New York, DiPrima is looking to sustain his current momentum through the peak months of the season.

"I just hope we can improve our stock a little," he said. "If we can do that we'll be competitive, we'll be in the thick of it. I need a couple more high-priced claimers."

When he gets them and gives them a few weeks of R&R, look out.