12/27/2006 12:00AM

Space makes the race?


Dean Keppler's "Trainer Angles" is the latest book in the "Elements of Handicapping" series from DRF Press. The following excerpt involves the spacing of races and how it can factor into your handicapping.

One of the most constantly changing and controversial handicapping factors is evaluating the importance of the number of days between a horse's last start and today's event. When I was in high school and a proud, dim-witted, frivolous handicapper, I often sent away for any horse-racing book, magazine, or get-rich Thoroughbred or harness system I could get my hands on. If your introduction to handicapping was similar to my own, you probably remember how these handicapping articles often stressed the significance of days between each start.

I remember an article in an old American Turf Monthly that actually assigned a graded point system depending on how many days it had been since a specific entrant's last race. In fact, I think I even went so far as to integrate some version of this formula into a mechanical system of my own that I created for Atlantic City Racecourse during the summer of 1984. If I remember correctly, it went something like this: Add 5 points for a horse that last started 7 to 14 days ago, 3 points for a horse that last started 15 to 22 days ago, 2 points for a horse that started 23 to 30 days ago, and subtract 1 for any horse that started more than 30 days ago. Sound familiar? Twenty years ago I thought this nonsensical point system was equivalent to uncovering some type of secret code or map to a lost Egyptian treasure. In the 1980's it was standard handicapping practice that horses that hadn't started in the last two to three weeks were often eliminated as potential win threats.

Today, factors such as year-round racing, improved training methods, and the use of many types of medications have allowed horses to readily win from anywhere between three to 300 days since their last racing date. This known fact has driven away and somewhat quieted handicapping theorists looking to find a handicapping gem hidden in the "last racing day" angle. Fifteen to 20 years ago it was even considered a negative sign to have a horse coming off an extended layoff, and the general consensus was that a runner returning within a week or two could be considered sound, fit, and likely to run well. But the times have changed - or have they?

Daily Racing Form veteran handicapper Jim Kachulis had this to add about the importance of layoff runners and discovering proven winning trainer patterns:

"Trainer patterns have many subtleties as far as handicapping goes, but among them is the spacing of a horse's race. A classic case is the versatile New York-bred sprinter Unswept, who has been under the care of top conditioner Gary Contessa more than once. The 6-year-old gelding had his usual excellent winter meet at Aqueduct in 2006. The key fact, however, is that Contessa realized that his runner does his best with exactly one month between races. Running the Formulator program allows us to see the lifetime history of Unswept. He earned his first 90-plus Beyer when winning on February 20, 2003, exactly a month after failing to score in the Fred Capossela Stakes. After several barn changes, trainer Frank Laboccetta claimed this horse on New Year's Day of 2005. A month later, he had the sprinter ready to win despite a sharp jump in claiming price. Contessa re-claimed the horse in September of 2005, and on Dec. 10 (a month after finishing out of the money for a 40-grand price tag), Unswept found the winner's circle again. Studying the gaps between races (especially of an older, hard-hitting claimer) can often unearth similar gems."

No rest for the weary

For the most part, the modern handicapper now recognizes that an extended layoff in today's Thoroughbred game is no longer an automatic disadvantage. Still, there are many trainers that continue to have enormous success with horses returning off a short break. It's imperative that you know who these individuals are and whether they frequently participate at your local circuit or favorite simulcast-betting signals. The success of these quick "wheel-back" trainers substantiates the fact that individual training habits and proven success are what is most important. The time between races and its overall value depends on the conditioner we have placed under the microscope. There would be no convincing trainer James Berry (5 for 5) or Robert Bowman (11 for 16) that the best plan of attack comes from layoff runners (see chart). These two horsemen have racked up favorable statistics when returning their stock off a week's rest, or even less.

The 25 trainers listed below have had a tremendous amount of success with the "1-7 days since last racing date" angle. I've also included four additional charts in this chapter that cover trainers who specialize in runners that are returning off two- or three-month vacations and making their second start after these extended layoffs. I recommend that you add some of them to your online DRF Trainer Watch list, or at the very least give them an extra look if one of them turns up in today's past performances with a highly successful last-racing-date angle.