01/29/2007 1:00AM

Trainer is a solid bet in several categoriesP


Don't ask Corale "Bunky" Richards to tell you the things he does well as a horse trainer.

"None of them, probably," said Richards, asked to guess which areas of DRF trainer stats would make him look good.

Wrong, Bunky.

Richards, 66, has been training on some level for 34 years. While he still worked as a civil engineer for the state of Louisiana, he dabbled in Thoroughbreds at defunct Jefferson Downs and Fair Grounds, but once he took an early retirement, Richards began training full time. His mentor at the game? Nobody.

For years, Richards said, he only trained horses that he owned. Getting a horse to earn a check that would help pay a feed bill might be just as important as waiting for the perfect spot to win a race.

"I had to run them on a regular basis, every two to three weeks just to pay the bills," Richards said. "When I started getting clients, I started picking my spots a little more."

There were benefits to having his own stock, and Richards apparently brought to bear his engineer's mind on the art of training.

"It's trial and error," Richards said. "With my own horses, I could try any crazy thing. Sometimes running horses back real quick if they were eating well, sometimes I'd train them the day of the race. I had this deal that I'd take the horses out and lunge them in a 60-foot round pen instead of taking them to the track."

Richards, who eventually started attracting clients and now keeps between 20 and 25 horses, figured some things out. His 1986 record was 8 for 95, and as recently as 1996 he won only 9 from 134 starts. But by 2000, Richards was up to 26 for 146, and last year he went 25 for 183. At the current Fair Grounds meet, he has already won 10 races.

The DRF trainer form sheet shows that Richards, despite his skepticism, is a strong play in many categories. For example, in all claiming races the last two years, Richards has put together a 22 percent strike rate with a tremendous $3.41 return on investment. In fact, in the 18 trainer-form categories in which he has 10 or more starts, Richards shows a positive ROI in nine of them. In all dirt races, his ROI is a more-than-respectable $1.90.

A lot of times, you will see Richards banging away with a low-level Louisiana-bred that looks somewhat hopeless, but the animal will eventually turn a corner and pop at a nice price. He consistently wins with layoff horses, and has done very well with horses making their first start in his care.

"I've had a lot of success taking horses from a farm and moving them up," he said.

Richards said he believes he does well picking out young horses at sales, but those horses don't necessarily make good 2-year-olds. While 2006 marked a good year with babies, Richards has won with only three 2-year-olds from 31 starts the last two seasons.

But such areas of weakness are subject to change, even though Richards has four decades of training under his belt.

"One thing I know I've learned is that you always learn - that it's not an exact science," he said.