Updated on 09/17/2011 11:59AM

'Super-trainers' make game harder than ever


WASHINGTON - The racing game continually changes in subtle ways, and horseplayers must adapt to the changes in order to survive. But in recent years, bettors have observed one change so profound that it has altered the sport and the nature of handicapping: the rise of the super-trainer.

Of course, horseplayers have always known that it is essential to consider the strengths, weaknesses, and overall competence of Thoroughbred trainers. In modern-day racing, at tracks large and small from coast to coast, certain trainers have become as important as the horses themselves.

The super-trainers achieve winning percentages that defy all the traditional norms of their profession. In the past it was extraordinary for a trainer to win with as many as 25 percent of his starters. Of the top 35 race-winning trainers in 1980, only one (future Hall of Famer Bud Delp) reached that figure. When the great horseman Bill Mott had the best year of his career, operating an exceptionally powerful stable that included Horse of the Year Cigar, he won with 24 percent of his starters. But such a performance would represent a mini-slump for many of the contemporary super-trainers, who dominate race meetings by winning at a 30 or 40 percent clip.

The super-trainers score many victories in ways that defy precedent. Traditionalists have always maintained that developing a good horse is a long, slow process that demands patience. Charlie Whittingham was one of the greatest trainers who ever lived, but when he got new horses, he needed much time to improve them. After he took over the training of Cougar II, the colt lost four straight races and didn't become a star until a year later. Viewed from the context of modern racing, Whittingham looks almost inept. The super-trainers not only rack up amazing records, but they regularly acquire horses and transform them in a matter of weeks:

* Bobby Frankel dominates America's Grade 1 stakes. Even though his horses run in the best races against the toughest competition, Frankel has won with 32 percent of his starters this year. His ability to improve horses is astonishing. He recently acquired the 3-year-old filly Spoken Fur after she had narrowly won two low-level allowance races in Kentucky; after five weeks in Frankel's care, she ran in the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont and demolished the field by more than five lengths.

* Scott Lake operates a massive, far-flung stable of claiming horses, yet he manages to achieve a success rate that would be the envy of trainers with small, select operations: In 2000 he started more than 1,000 horses and won with 32 percent of them. He scored his greatest coup when he claimed Shake You Down for $65,000 in March and turned him into the nation's fastest sprinter by April. The gelding won a $500,000 stakes on Saturday.

* Kiaran McLaughlin figured to do well when he came to Belmont Park this spring with a contingent of well-bred horses that had been based in Dubai, but nobody could have imagined how well. Even horses with dismal-looking form have been scoring runaway victories, and McLaughlin has won with 44 percent of his starters.

* Jeff Mullins emerged as a star of his profession when he won with one-third of his starters at the tough Santa Anita meeting; he took over the training of Buddy Gil, who had been a failure against lesser competition at Golden Gate Fields, and won the Santa Anita Derby with him. Mullins started the Hollywood Park meeting at a 78 percent clip (7 for 9) before the state racing commission launched an investigation into the form reversal of Flyindownbaylaurel, who had lost her four starts by a combined total of 64 lengths before Mullins claimed her and won with her.

Although the aforementioned men have gained national recognition because they compete at the most important tracks, trainers on lesser racing circuits are surpassing the historical norms of the sport, too.

Michael Pino is winning with 40 percent of his starters at the tough Delaware Park meeting. Texas-based Cole Norman is the nation's third-winningest trainer; according to Daily Racing Form statistics, he wins an astonishing 30 percent of the time with horses he claimed in their previous start.

The extraordinary success of so many trainers has given rise to suspicions that the use of illegal drugs is rampant in American racing. Because of these suspicions, many elements of the racing industry are working to strengthen testing for prohibited substances such as EPO. But for horseplayers, the reasons for the performance of the super-trainers hardly matter. We have to deal with the fact that certain trainers may become the central factor in a race and render irrelevant conventional handicapping methods.

Horses recently claimed or purchased by super-trainers have to be respected no matter how bad their form or speed figures look. Because the odds on the recognized super-trainers' horses are always depressed, bettors need to look for emerging super-trainers. Whenever a horse wins a race showing unexpected improvement, a handicapper should make note of the trainer and look at his other runners: Is this the start of a trend? Californians who observed the Mullins magic early had plenty of chances to profit before the public at large jumped on his bandwagon.

In general, though, the presence of the super-trainers has made the game tougher than ever. Many horseplayers were discouraged from betting at Gulfstream Park last winter because of the presence of Mark Shuman, who obliterated Mott's record for winners in a single season. His horses were omnipresent; in the majority of races, bettors had to wonder whether a horse recently claimed by Shuman would improve sharply or whether a horse claimed away from Shuman would go off form. Figuring out Shuman became even more difficult after track officials barred one of his veterinarians and the trainer went through a conspicuous losing streak before starting to win again.

In such circumstances, bettors are forced to guess about the trainer instead of relying on the traditional fundamentals of speed, class and recent form. The methods prescribed in the handicapping textbooks suddenly seem as outdated as the classic precepts for training Thoroughbreds.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post