02/24/2005 12:00AM

Sure, they're winning - but which races?

Kiaran McLaughlin has had keen success with turf runners at the Gulfstream meet.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Many handicappers familiarize themselves with jockey and trainer standings. They know those who are winning and those who are not, although perhaps not the details of which races.

To look beyond the overall numbers, horseplayers can save old Daily Racing Forms and charts and/or access computer databases. Those who put in the effort only hope that such analysis will pay off down the road.

I certainly hope so - this week I spent the time researching three leading trainers at Gulfstream Park: Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Hennig, and Todd Pletcher.

All three are in the midst of outstanding meets. Through Wednesday, McLaughlin was 8 for 31 (26 percent winners) with a $2 return on investment of $2.21; Hennig was 9 for 32 (28 percent) with a $2.90 ROI; and Pletcher was 19 for 68 (28 percent) with a $2.33 ROI.

Aside from the favorable ROI's, those victory totals and percentages are the numbers most everyone knows. They leap out in the past performances every time these trainers run a horse.

What is not present in the past performances is that McLaughlin has won five turf races at Gulfstream this meet, more than any other trainer. Another five have finished second - from a total of only 16 starters on turf.

The numbers become even more striking considering that many of these runners were returning from time off, which is typical of many grass horses at this time of year.

Granted, McLaughlin has the benefit of training well-bred horses for such clients as Shadwell Farm and Frank Stronach, but they have still outperformed the public's expectations, as evidenced by the profitable ROI.

As for Hennig and Pletcher, their success has come more on dirt than turf, which is largely owed to the composition of their stables. A number of horses in Hennig's barn, for example, are Edward Evans-owned homebreds with dirt pedigrees.

Hennig is 1-0-1 from eight starters on the meet in turf races; Pletcher is 4-7-2 from 31 turf starts. Looking at their dirt numbers, Hennig is 8-3-2 from 24 starters and Pletcher is 15-9-4 from 37.

They have high ROI's to go with those winning dirt records. A bet on each of the Hennig-trained dirt runners would have yielded a $3.43 return. A wager on the Pletcher-trained dirt horses would have returned $2.96.

The rewarding returns are at least partially the result of the public underestimating their comebacking horses. Counting horses racing on dirt and turf, Hennig-trained horses returning from layoffs at Gulfstream have compiled a 6-2-1 record with 17 starters (35 percent winners) with a $2.58 ROI. Pletcher-trained layoff runners have similarly excelled, going 12-10-2 with 34 starters (also 35 percent winners) with an ROI of $2.91.

In one notable example, the two trainers combined to finish one-two with fillies in a fast allowance at Gulfstream on Jan. 28. The Hennig-trained Forty Moves won the race, beating the Pletcher-trained Bohemian Lady. Both the winner and the runner-up ran the highest Beyer Speed Figures of their careers. Forty Moves ran a 106, Bohemian Lady a 102.

Other comebacking horses they train have also run career-best figures this meet, illustrating just how primed they have been for their returns. Consider Pletcher's statistics - excluding three layoff runners who were making their first starts in the United States, 17 of his 31 layoff horses this meet have matched or exceeded their previous high Beyer Figures in their comeback races.

Of these three trainers, only Pletcher has a comebacker entered on Saturday's card at Gulfstream, that being Path of Thunder in the Grade 3 Sabin Handicap. A full sister to Spain, she seems to have been entered in this race with the goal of hitting the board and earning her first graded-stakes placing. This would elevate her residual broodmare value.

Even taking into account Pletcher's favorable layoff numbers, it is difficult to envision her winning. She has simply faced lesser competition than others, including her uncoupled stablemate, Isola Piu Bella, a multiple Group 1 winner in Chile.

Hennig and Pletcher are represented by other starters on the card. Hennig has Cherokee Spook in the eighth race, a second-level allowance at seven furlongs on dirt, and Calypso Band in a one-other-than allowance in the 10th race. That race also attracted the Pletcher-trained Monarch Lane, who won at first asking in his only race.

They face a daunting task: racing against Sun King, the third-place finisher from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Down the road there should be more opportunities to play these trainers. They operate large stables, and with the new year of racing only two months under way, many of their runners will likely be returning from layoffs in the near future.