07/12/2009 11:00PM

Subtleties of the fine print


As Thoroughbred racing struggles to regain its standing with the sporting public, as it looks to ways to make it easier for newcomers and moderately experienced players to understand its complexities, I often wonder why no one is looking at the complicated way the game cards races every day.

Take allowance races, for a prime example. There are races for nonwinners of two races lifetime; races for nonwinners of a race other than maiden, claiming, or starter; races for horses bred in a single state in which those victories do not count against their eligibility at the nonwinners-of-two level. And there are combined optional claiming-allowance races that literally state: For nonwinners of two races other than maiden, claiming, starter or restricted, or which have never won three races lifetime, or an optional claiming race of $50,000.

And that's just a sampling of the gobbledygook that rules allowance race conditions.

You know what I am talking about. Yet, isn't it surprising that racing officials and the entire racing industry continue to make the game impenetrable to so many by employing such unnecessary complexities? This in an age when one armed-bandits are even considered too complex for casino gamblers, as they merely have to push a button or two to play their mindless slot machines.

There are races for horses who have not won X-amount of money in the past year; races open to horses who have not won that amount or more during the past two years; and races for nonwinners at one mile or over, or for horses without a win at the distance with an added money-won clause that further requires intensive reading of the race conditions. This to know who might really fit a given allowance race best among the horses entered.

Good trainers and jockey agents certainly are capable of interpreting these and other more complex race conditions to properly place their fit and ready horses. But to require everyday horseplayers - especially newcomers - to sift through the nuances of these subtleties is one very good way to discourage interested players from going to the next levels of handicapping.

Let's be clear about this: While I am no trainer or jockey agent, extensive playing experience has taught me and others like me how to read through the most complicated race conditions. The exercise is not merely academic. It is fundamental to spotting well-placed horses and horses in over their heads. Experience doing this certainly is an advantage, but I am one player among many who would support a unified racing industry effort to abandon this outdated method to card races in favor of more streamlined race conditions for the modern era.

Why not limit the number of different allowance races to much fewer clearly defined class levels:

Nonwinners of two races lifetime.

Nonwinners of a race other than maiden or claiming.

Starter allowance races for maiden claiming race winners, with no other wins.

Nonwinners of a race in six months.

Nonwinners of two races lifetime other than maiden or claiming.

Nonwinners of three races other than maiden, or claiming.

Open allowance, with no restrictions.

Should any racing secretary want to add a distance clause to any or all of the above, fine, no big deal. If a statebred clause needs to be set up for each level, fine, but the game needs to be made more accessible for new fans as they express their initial interest in a complex sport. The sport needs to give people a chance to see how stimulating and fair it is compared to anything found in the casino.

Lacking such long overdue reforms, here are some guidelines that I have used through the years to spot live horses in allowance races with eligibility conditions that resemble the basic conditions cited above. The guidelines apply to more than half the allowance races seen at tracks throughout the country, at every level of the class spectrum.

* In nonwinners of two races lifetime, I much prefer a horse with very few starts who won a maiden race with a competitive Beyer Speed Figure. I eagerly toss horses who have failed to win in five or more attempts at this level unless they are trying a new racing surface or distance they were bred for, such as a son of Dynaformer stretching out to try a two-turn route race on the grass.

* In nonwinners of a race other than maiden or claiming, I strongly prefer multiple claiming race winners over maiden grads, unless the maiden grad earned a Beyer Fig higher than the Beyer par for the allowance class, something that can be discerned by checking the Beyer pars listed for each class of race in Simulcast Weekly. I also look for horses who may dominate the race from a pace standpoint, as in a lone front-runner, or a solid stalk-n-go type who has competitive speed figures.

A good longshot example of this was seen at Arlington Park on July 10, when three-time winner and logical front-runner Cuban Missile scored a wire-to-wire allowance win at 17-1.

* In starter allowance races, those reserved for the winners of a single maiden claiming race at a specified value, I prefer lightly raced maiden grads with competitive Beyer Speed Figures, especially those who may still have a future at a higher level of competition.

A good example of this was Earstoyou, winner of the ninth at Hollywood on the July 11 card.

* In nonwinners of a race in six months - a rare allowance condition that is quite common among equally complex claiming race conditions - I prefer absentees. When a horse has been actively racing and losing during the past six months - be it in allowance or claiming races - I think you will do a lot better downgrading his win potential against a fresh horse that has come out of mothballs for a race that his connections astutely picked out for him.

* In nonwinners of two races other than maiden or claiming, I look for horses with good form at the level, or horses dropping into this allowance condition from stakes races, especially those horses who may have been rushed into stakes competition after a promising maiden win or entry-level allowance who will appreciate the class relief.

Allicansayis Wow was an example of this in the seventh race at Hollywood on the July 11 card.

Occasionally, this race condition also favors multiple winners of higher priced claiming races. For example, at Belmont Park, a solid $50,000 claiming horse usually will outclass most non-claiming horses entered at this allowance race condition. At Calder, a $30,000 claiming race winner will do the same.

w Nonwinners-of-three-other-than allowance races typically are won by stakes prospects, or by solid stakes horses seeking class relief, or streaking multiple claiming race winners who have Beyer Figure support that suggest they can handle the class raise.

w Allowance races open to any and all comers usually are stakes races without the stakes designations. You will rarely find a pure allowance horse or a high-priced multiple claiming winner take these races unless they have an overwhelming pace or speed figure edge. Even then, they will have to deal with legit graded stakes horses, and relatively generous odds would be a sensible requirement.

As for the nonwinners of a race since Punxatawny Phil last saw his shadow, or the five-horse allowance race for nonwinners of two races and $13,500 at a mile or more since Sept. 30, 2008, who have not won a $35,000 optional claiming race, I will look for the horse who won his last mile race worth that much on Sept. 29 or sigh and move on to something that deserves closer inspection. I am sure there are many players, including 20-year veterans, who feel the same.