01/09/2003 12:00AM

Throw out shippers at your own peril

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ARCADIA, Calif. - One of the daily challenges presented to handicappers is analyzing shippers from other circuits. In that regard, horseplayers betting Santa Anita's races have an easy time relative to their East Coast counterparts.

Southern California is a virtual island of horse racing. The majority of horses who compete during winter are based at Santa Anita or nearby Hollywood Park. Beyond a few shippers from Turf Paradise, Aqueduct, Europe, or South America, the majority of fresh horses whom Santa Anita handicappers must assess are from Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields on the northern California circuit.

It is a different story on the East Coast. This winter at Gulfstream Park, handicappers will analyze shippers from near and far. They arrive from all over, including other parts of Florida (Calder), Delaware (Delaware Park), Maryland (Laurel), Illinois (Hawthorne), Canada (Woodbine), Kentucky (Churchill Downs), New Jersey (The Meadowlands), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia Park), and New York (Aqueduct).

Shippers often present a dilemma for bettors. It's not an easy task to compare horses in the same race who have shipped in from different tracks.

Being able to evaluate shippers provides perceptive handicappers with a potential advantage that might not otherwise be afforded horseplayers in Southern California. After all, with only one feeder circuit to deal with, how difficult is it to accurately analyze the chances of a shipper?

From 752 horses who ran during the first two weeks of the Santa Anita winter meet, 54 made their last start in northern California. No other circuit provided as many ship-ins as that of Golden Gate and Bay Meadows. Considering the class distinction between Southern California and northern California, one might expect evaluation of the shippers to be an easy task. After all, Southern California is major-league and northern California is not.

The dissimilarity between the circuits shows up all the way down to the lowest class levels. At Golden Gate, $8,000 maiden claiming company represents the bottom; they race for a $9,000 purse. At Santa Anita, the bottom is $25,000 maiden claimers, racing for an $18,000 purse. Higher purses attract horses of higher quality. That has always been the case.

While comparing Beyer Speed Figures from one circuit to another invites misinterpretation, a general comparison of Beyer pars further reveals the difference between northern California and Southern California. The one-other-than allowance par at Golden Gate is 89, while at Santa Anita it is 97. The lowest-level open claiming par at Golden Gate is 77 for $4,000 claimers; at Santa Anita the bottom-level par is 83, for $10,000 claimers.

This is not to browbeat Golden Gate or Bay Meadows, which hold appeal to many horseplayers. But the overall quality of horses that compete at those tracks are simply inferior to those which compete at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park. It is fact. The quality of racing in northern California is weaker than it is in Southern California.

The logical result, regarding shippers going north to south, would seem to be fairly simple. A handicapper might submit blanket dismissal of any horse at Santa Anita whose last start was at Bay Meadows or Golden Gate. It would be a snobby approach, supported by plenty of anecdotal evidence early in the winter meet.

The opening-day Santa Anita card on Dec. 26 saw Bay Meadows shipper D's Bertrando finish up the track as the 3-2 favorite in a California-bred stakes race. The same thing happened the next day when a well-regarded shipper, second favorite Jaciro, finished seventh in a California-bred stakes race for fillies. On Dec. 29, another well-bet runner was Treasured Note, who was returning to Southern California after a poor try in a Golden Gate stakes race. Treasured Note finished fifth as the second choice in a first-condition allowance race.

Handicappers who entered the Santa Anita meet with the preconceived notion to shun any and all northern California shippers were finding little reason to adjust. The narrow-minded approach might continue if handicapping factors were etched in stone. But they are not, and stubborn handicappers who fail to amend their thinking are asking for trouble. It already happened this winter at Santa Anita.

It is fact that most northern California shippers are outclassed in Southern California. Handicappers who fail to recognize the disparity between the circuits are not paying attention. However, it is every bit as misguided to recommend wholesale condemnation of every shipper from northern California.

Seven of the 54 northern California shippers did win at Santa Anita, an admirable win rate of nearly 13 percent. While none of the winners was favored, of the 21 cases in which northern California shippers started at odds less than 10-1, seven won. That's a 33-percent strike rate.

Still, there was a common thread among many winners - previous form in Southern California. Five of the seven northern California shippers that won had run well previously in Southern California. Another had earned a 99 Beyer in his most recent start at Bay Meadows. Of course, there is a flip side. That is, northern California shippers without previous Southern California form are frequently up against it.

Handicappers may continue to relegate northern California shippers to secondary consideration in the handicapping process at Santa Anita. Usually, it is the right move. But to assign blanket denunciation of all northern California shippers is to engage in handicapping arrogance that can only subtract from the bottom line.