06/05/2001 11:00PM

Spotting horses ready to win off a long layoff

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Horse racing is an evolving game. Unlike basketball, for example - which years ago added a three-point shot and a shot clock - changes to racing have been more subtle. Yet the sport is different than it was 20 years ago.

Now, there are more betting options than straight bets and the daily double. A person can bet through home, via the Internet or telephone. And those who attend the track can in some cases bet more than horses, maybe even pull a few one-armed bandits.

Then, of course, there are the changes on the track. Purses have risen astronomically, along with vet and training costs. And training itself now differs greatly.

But as handicappers, many of us approach the game as we learned it. I know I have. Beliefs and fundamentals we learned as newcomers tend to stick with us, no matter how much evidence to the contrary is presented.

Having watched the horses of previous years withstand taxing campaigns on short rest, I initially thought that the concept of a horse needing a month off for an optimum effort seemed like pampering. But upon closer examination, I no longer feel that way.

It wasn't long ago that a horse returning after a month layoff would be considered short. Now he's fresh.

Medication and the growing fragility of Thoroughbreds have altered the game. Horses need more time between races to recover, and on the flip side, sometimes don't need as much activity to win off a layoff.

In this change there lies an opportunity for bettors to capitalize.

Because so many horseplayers view layoffs of 45 days or more as a significant fitness obstacle, value is present on comebacking runners.

This is not to say that all layoff horses make great bets. They do not. On a whole they remain less effective than their active opponents, whom have been running regularly.

There are exceptions, and these are the ones to embrace. Fillies, particularly those who are naturally light, run well when fresh. Some even run better.

A series of hard races can cause these fillies to dip below what their trainers feel are their target weight levels. So when they return from time off - which often is spent at the farm grazing - they come back heavier and rejuvenated. Then they often proceed to run a peak effort right off the bench.

How do you spot such a horse? On paper and in person.

Horses who run well off layoffs tend to continually do so. They don't always win, but they outperform their odds and run Beyer Speed Figures off layoffs that exceed the bulk of their other numbers.

One good way to spot a horse who thrives on rest is to glance through his entire past performances. Has he won off a layoff or hit the board after time away? How do his layoff Beyers match up to his other numbers? And in the case of lightly raced horse, was the animal able to win his debut - which would closely resemble a comeback race?

If the horse shows evidence of performing well off layoffs, these types should be given a hard look - even more so if their trainers win at a high percentage with layoff runners. Granted, they still must fit on other merits - such as class and pace.

A few examples are present Friday at Hawthorne. The first is Gold Widow in race 2, and later Silver Bid and Trapped Echoes in race 9.

Gold Widow, a winner of one of three starts, returns following over a six-month hiatus in an entry-level allowance on turf.

Although she shows no layoff lines in her short past performances, she did win her debut last fall when trained by Kenny Smith. Now in the barn of Mike Stidham, she appears set to fire fresh. She worked five furlongs more than a month ago, and appears fit for her return.

She is a question mark on turf, not having raced on the surface. Being a daughter of Dynaformer, she is bred for grass.

Following this same trend, a couple of longshots may outperform expectations in the ninth. Silver Bid and Trapped Echoes, both winners following layoffs, may be ready to run well off layoffs. On paper they don't appear as strong as Gold Widow, but at prices they are worth throwing into the exotics

Naturally, horses cannot be viewed solely on paper. They are more than numbers or figures.

Viewing them in the paddock will provide clues to their fitness and ability to fire fresh.

A horse fit off a layoff will not be noticeably heavy. He'll be lean and in good health. With a filly in particular, look for legs that don't stop and a fit chest.

Combined with a favorable history of running well off layoffs, these types can make for rewarding plays.