11/23/2009 12:00AM

Turning patterns into profits


A year after graduating from Rutgers University in 1964, I left a well-paying job with the New York Central Railroad to pursue life as a professional horseplayer.

The Fair Grounds in New Orleans was a great place to test what I had learned at Garden State Park and Aqueduct during my college years. The Fair Grounds was fertile territory for someone who believed then, as I believe now, that trainer patterns are the most reliable window to look through to pick horses the general public generally misses. The Fair Grounds was loaded with top training talent at the time.

Among the best to study and follow was future Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, who was taking over the reins from his Hall of Fame father, Marion H. Van Berg.

While most contemporary players may credit D. Wayne Lukas with having perfected the art of managing several divisions of a large racing stable, the elder Van Berg actually pioneered this approach in the 1950s and 60s with horse vans and trains, well before the jet transport plane was used for shipping and commuting from track to track. Few horsemen in history ever were better than father and son Van Berg at selecting which of their relatively cheap horses belonged at which track during what time of the year and at what claiming level.

The Van Bergs did not have royally bred horses. Most were either bred in Nebraska or claimed for low prices in Illinois or Kentucky. But if you look up the Van Berg's individual and combined records you will see just how prolific they were.

With a handful of different trainers working under his guidance, Marion Van Berg led the nation's owners in races won 14 years from 1952 through 1970. Son Jack, who became the primary trainer for his father in the mid 1960s and also added horses owned by other patrons, was the nation's leading trainer in races won nine times from 1968 through 1983 and that was before he won the 1984 Preakness with Gate Dancer, the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Alysheba, and 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic and Horse of the Year with the same Hall of Fame horse.

During my first years at the Fair Grounds, I saw Jack Van Berg win with a very high percentage of newly claimed horses, something the general public did not know unless they kept their own private records. I also saw him strike with a very high percentage of horses he and his father shipped in from other tracks to run in specific Fair Grounds races, similar to the way the late Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert did in recent years.

Using the insights I gained in New Orleans, I also saw Van Berg dominate Rockingham Park one summer in the late 1960s when he shipped there for the first time with a sharp group of claimers. I bet every one of his Rockingham starters - including those ridden by a seven-pound apprentice named Charles Maffeo - for profits that might only be matched today by a pick six hit.

While at the Fair Grounds, I also saw the expert work of trainer Homer Pardue, who regularly used the Fair Grounds as a training base for a handful of fast horses that would be ready to fire when the New York season began in mid-March. Another trainer who taught me some invaluable lessons was Aleece Richard, who trained for a popular New Orleans-based owner, Joe W. Brown.

Long forgotten by most, Richard (pronounced Ree-chard), was a patient horsemen, someone who usually used a seemingly disappointing prep race before firing his best shot, a fact that paid off when I was at Atlantic City Race Course in 1966 and a Richard-trained longshot named Tartan Man was entered in a tough allowance race after a dull race following a layoff. Tartan Man won for fun at 6-1 and financed my bankroll for the fall Churchill Downs meet, prior to a return to the Fair Grounds, where Richard won his usual handful of stakes and allowance races off similar preps.

All this background is shared to make a central point about how to approach Fair Grounds handicapping.

This historic track, which has been around since 1872 and was rebuilt after a fire in 1993 and further withstood Hurricane Katrina, remains a great place to bet horses, especially if you take seriously the need to identify the winning patterns of the best and most selective trainers who operate there.

In recent seasons, the ones that have caught my eye include Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss, Merrill Scherer, Steve Margolis, Patrick Mouton, Keith Bourgeois, Billy Mott, Bret Calhoun, Albert Stall, and Eric Guillot.

Asmussen merely has taken the Van Berg model of multi-split stables to a new level of proficiency and is exceptionally effective with shippers as well as with newly claimed stock and fast-working, lightly raced young horses. Amoss wins with about 20 percent of all starters but even more importantly tends to scout out mid-priced claimers to add to his stable when he goes north. Scherer not only wins races in Chicago during the summer, but seems to point at least half of his stable for this meet. In other words, Scherer is not running culls here.

Margolis has a nice habit of springing upsets in Fair Grounds turf sprints, especially with horses who ran well on this track's turf course last year. Mouton tends to be a slow Fair Grounds starter, but usually does well with absentees after the first few weeks of the meet and with horses making their third start in an improving form cycle. By contrast, Louisiana-based Bourgeois tends to ship several ready-to-run Louisiana-breds from his base at Delta Downs and often gets off to fast starts.

Hall of Famer Billy Mott rarely has his first string in New Orleans, but he still is reliable in turf allowance races over a distance of ground. Calhoun, a high-percentage trainer with a wide range of strengths, is at his best with young, front-running sprinters. Stall is a 20 percent winner in many categories, but is especially effective with droppers into maiden claiming races. This was the case when Stall unleashed Gonna to win a $15,000 maiden claimer by 10 lengths on Sunday at an acceptable $6.80 mutuel. Stall also reminds me once in a while of Richard in the way he will spring a horse after a dull outing at virtually the same distance and class level. Guillot comes with West Coast connections and is very strong with horses getting equipment changes. This he clearly demonstrated with Lovely Tribute on Nov. 13 and with Prolonged and Arrested Silver on Nov. 22.

Beyond their specific winning tendencies, with a little digging you will find that many of the above horsemen have specific winning relationships with the better riders on the grounds, including Corey Lanerie, Jamie Theriot, John Jacinto, James Graham, and the returning veteran Shane Sellers. After Churchill Downs closes on Saturday, we can expect to see Robby Albarado and Shaun Bridgmohan resume their best connections.

Track biases do occur here, but they usually are weather related. Fact is, New Orleans does get plenty of rain, which can create tricky track maintenance issues given the underground river that flows a dozen feet below most of the Crescent City. The secret is to carefully watch developing trends. Moreover, the Fair Grounds grass course is deep rooted and tends to favor horses with proven local turf form, more than mere turf racing experience.

The 138th Thoroughbred season began Nov. 6 and will run through March 28, 2010, highlighted by the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby on March 27.

* On Dec. 18 and 19, Steve Davidowitz will be at the Fair Grounds to host a handicapping contest and two seminars as well as sign copies of his book "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century."