12/07/2009 12:00AM

Taking Euro maiden angle to the bank

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The same confounding synthetic surface that has blunted the figure handicapper's razor edge during the Santa Anita winter-spring season - high pace figures among the developing 3-year-olds - has extended a new and brightly profitable edge to class analysts there. The evidence remains anecdotal, but the trend has begun to look unmistakable - dependable overlays in maiden races.

Until recently, the steady influx of European runners at Santa Anita has rarely offered betting opportunities in maiden races. Frequently eligible to the conditioned allowances, the imports instead have been targeted at the stakes and graded stakes: the richer the races, the stronger the attraction. As a rule, too, the Euros have exited the stakes and graded stakes at major European tracks.

The new wrinkle has an opposite hue - foreigners from the minor tracks of Europe that remain maidens. No doubt an inviting element of the attraction has been the presence of a synthetic surface. Instead of turf to dirt as the abiding handicap to European form in these lower-level races, it's now turf to synthetic, or from the synthetic surfaces of England, it's synthetic to synthetic, and the outcomes are far more hospitable to the shipping teams.

The aspect of the trend of compelling attraction to handicappers are the payoffs when the Europeans do win - overlays, and not a few of them veritable longshots. It happened again two Saturdays ago at Hollywood Park on the Cushion Track with a romping European maiden winner that should have been 4-1 and paid 14-1 instead. More on that momentarily.

Ever since the 3-year-old import Tolomeo upset the great John Henry in the 1983 Arlington Million at 38-1 but paid 4-1 in his native England, American handicappers have inexorably come to understand that European racing on the turf is better - much better. Handicappers on alert to the trend early on cashed a number of magnificent mutuels on European invaders that were better than the home team and should have paid half as much. Just as inexorably across the seasons, the odds on the classy imports have fallen to rational levels, and today European grass runners just as frequently run as underlays.

Three conditions have conspired to alter the wagering equation in a way that begs success: (1) synthetic surfaces; (2) European maidens; and (3) the shippers come from minor tracks. If the European maidens have lost a couple at Naas in Ireland or Lingfield in England, U.S. handicappers will be unimpressed to a fault and tend to discount them, at least in relation to fancier local maidens. In truth, in several situations the European maidens are better horses and more than a few of them have paid handsomely.

The fourth at Hollywood Park on Saturday, Nov. 28, was another in a growing line of maiden races that featured the presence of a European maiden that qualified as a contender. A number of this kind had appeared in maiden races during Oak Tree at Santa Anita in October, and when a couple of them paid double-digits while winning handily the observation that this had been happening more and more lately intensified. Toward the end of the Oak Tree meeting, I backed one of these European maidens at about 12-1 with disheartening results - the colt hardly warranted a call.

In the Hollywood Park race, I persevered, and the outcome proved delightful. Only six maidens had entered. The three contenders included Brenthurst, the European import out of losing efforts first at Newmarket (6th of 10 beaten 5 1/4 lengths) and next at Lingfield (4th of 12 beaten 1 1/2 lengths) and now making his second start versus local maidens. On Santa Anita's Pro-Ride at 31-1 on Nov. 1, Brenthurst had finished sixth of seven, beaten 3 1/2 lengths.

The other two contenders at Hollywood Park were Payment Approved and the second-time starter Raymorrison. Payment Approved had finished second in the same maiden sprint where Brenthurst had finished sixth, although Brenthurst had not run in the 13 months since Lingfield and could be expected to move forward. Raymorrison had not run since April 4 and was trained by Ron McAnally, a Hall of Famer who lately has been winning at 5 percent and had started fewer than 100 horses in 2009, and who has never been adept with the 3-year-olds, even in the glory days.

A crucial consideration of this broader discussion is an appreciation among handicappers of the importance of par in maiden races. Par is salient and frequently a decisive factor in handicapping maiden races because handicappers will be dealing with first starters and we do not know how fast they might run, and with second-time starters who customarily will improve by three to five lengths. As a rule, maidens that have run par last out should be expected to beat first starters - Secretariat lost the first time he ran - but will often be defeated by second-time starters that project as faster with normal improvement.

The maiden par for 3-year-old and up males at Santa Anita on the Beyer Speed Figure scale is 88 (the corresponding par for fillies and mares is 83). With that in mind, consider the Beyers for each of the three contenders in their latest efforts:

Date Horse Beyer Comment
Nov. 1 Brenthurst 79 Evenly off-pace
Nov. 1 Payment Approved 86 Speed and faded, held 2nd
April 4 Raymorrison 84 Stalked, finished 2nd

By conventional handicapping the play goes to Raymorrison. Normal improvement of three to five lengths translates on the Beyer scale to 8 to 13 speed points, with Raymorrison projected above par and capable of running a Beyer 92-97. Coupled with the barn's dismal performance of late, the lengthy layoff dulled the appeal of Raymorrison, although the son of Smart Strike would have been no surprise in the circle. Payment Approved was easier to discount. Not only had the colt lost eight in a row, the 86 Beyer had resulted from a lonesome lead that had lasted inside the eighth pole and represented a lifetime best. In other words, the entire eight-race sequence looked below par.

Now Brenthurst shapes up as a reasonable alternative if only the Johannesburg gelding can move forward by a few lengths. But the larger conclusion is hinged less to the figures and is absolutely the key to success: the European is probably the classier horse. As long as the local maidens remain below par and the European has demonstrated some degree of ability, a la Brenthurst, the play belongs on the European. If Brenthurst had run slow enough on Nov. 1 to warrant a Beyer of 69 or such, instead of 79, I would have lost interest. No sense in chasing foreign rainbows.

I wanted 9-2 to support Brenthurst, roughly a 50 percent overlay against the 3-1 odds he might have deserved in a below-par six-horse field. With seven minutes to post, Brenthurst was offered at an escalating 9-1 and in the end he went at 14-1. In the running, Brenthurst pressed the pace from the inside of Payment Approved, put that one away in the upper stretch, and won going away like the 3-1 shot he was intended to be.

To be sure, generous odds are the dividing line with these European maidens. The point bears repeating. Because the foreigners have lost at minor tracks of Europe, and maybe once or twice in the States, the bettors will discredit and often ignore the foreign form to a fault. The odds need not be 14-1, and several of the horses may lose, but at 8-1 perhaps and certainly higher a sufficient supply of these middling European maidens should be expected to win and toss remarkable profits.

Another circumstance at Santa Anita has arisen to buttress the supply side. At the route distances on the turf, even on the downhill turf course - a European-style layout, no less - the Arcadia track cards more maiden races at unconventional distances and on unconventional surfaces than ever. The argument in support of the European maidens coming out of minor ovals extends in all these directions. The argument extends to less degree to the nonwinners once allowance condition, but it does extend in kind, notably when the local contenders remain below par.

The decisive point is so basic as to be unmistakable. The Europeans from minor tracks will just be better horses, at least much of the time. It's tantamount to a hidden class maneuver. Let's hope handicappers can find a continual supply of these foreign-raced winners beginning with the start of the Santa Anita meeting on Dec. 26. Consider the unattractive imports a synthetic gift of the season.