02/04/2009 1:00AM

Two keys to Santa Anita


The move to the synthetic surfaces on the Southern California circuit has proved more problematic than imagined, at least by me, but - eureka! - the easy solution to all that ails us at Santa Anita has emerged at last, another in the unending supply of imaginative, ill-tested, undocumented systems for beating the races. More on the magical solution momentarily.

The problems that hound handicappers on Polytrack, Cushion Track, and Pro-Ride as the horses migrate from Del Mar to Hollywood Park to Santa Anita, rather than easing as time goes by, have grown inexorably more befuddling. Two weeks into the Santa Anita winter-spring meet, veteran handicappers observed how current form out of Hollywood Park could not be trusted on the Pro-Ride surface. Not only did obvious contenders tend to disappoint, but also several failed even to compete, not completing exactas, trifectas, or even superfectas.

The remedy appears obvious. Favorites and low-priced contenders exiting successful performances at Hollywood Park can be discounted, especially horses stabled there, training there, and never having touched down on the Pro-Ride polymers. Moreover, as time slips by, the problem of moving from one track to another will slip away, and recent performances at Santa Anita can be the predominant factor for form analysis.

A stickier problem hounds figure analysts, a huge audience, who have experienced the sharpest pains of adaptation. To illustrate, examine the Beyer Speed Figures calculated respectively on Sunshine Millions Saturday at Santa Anita by a pair of professional speed handicappers. Three of the four races were run on the Pro-Ride surface. The Quirin-style speed figures below have been converted to the Beyer Speed Figure scale.

BeyerQuirin-to-SpeedBeyer Speed

Leah's Secret9399 Sunshine Millions Distaff

Beltene8598 Sunshine Millions Oaks

Georgie Boy 101111 Sunshine Millions Sprint

It rained throughout that Saturday program and the calculation of accurate track variants is elusive, but the discrepancy, while greater than usual, is hardly an isolated situation. Throughout the seasons in Southern California the Beyer Speed Figures have remained highly complementary with the speed figures produced by other methods and other scales - but no longer. The problems associated with effective interpretation should not be underestimated.

If the Beyer Speed Figure is correct, Georgie Boy delivered a good but unexceptional performance in the Sunshine Millions Sprint. At Santa Anita in sprints, a Beyer of 101 amounts to par for a second-level allowance.

If the converted Quirin figure is correct, Georgie Boy can be hailed as a division leader among the 4-year-olds and up handicap horses, and an early wager in the Breeders' Cup Sprint on the same Pro-Ride surface next November would not be out of order. A Beyer of 111 is a Grade 1 sprint figure.

Georgie Boy was best among the 2008

3-year-olds in the winter and spring in Southern California, until he went down with an injury, and second only to Big Brown nationally, so it would be convenient to believe as a 4-year-old he has leaped to the head of the class again. Yet based upon the confounding numbers, the inference remains a bit speculative.

To complicate matters, on Jan. 28 the Pro-Ride surface changed abruptly but undeniably from fast to slow. Consider the track variants for sprints and routes for the weekend dates and the Wednesday-Thursday dates that followed:


Saturday Fast 3 Slow 2

(Split variants due to rains)

Sunday Slow 2 Fast 2

Wednesday Slow 4 Slow 8

Thursday Slow 3 Slow 7

Prior to the Jan. 24-25 weekend the daily track variants had ranged narrowly from fast 3 to fast 5 or slightly faster.

To be sure, the routes had slowed significantly on Jan. 28-29, and the six-furlong fractional variants were even more extreme. As events proceeded, the late-runners dominated in the routes on a track profile that suddenly had shifted in a way that handicappers cannot afford to ignore. The remedy, of course, is traditional - compile track profiles that reflect the running styles that have been winning at the various distances. Still, extreme variants contribute to unreliable figures and thereby unreliable and often unsuccessful handicapping.

Ian Pearse, the Australian engineer in charge of the Pro-Ride surface, has intimated the problems apparent on a synthetic surface on which more than a thousand horses will be training weekly should be expected to continue. Pearse has characterized as popular myth the conventional wisdom of synthetic surfaces as being maintenance-free. In response to horsemen's complaints about a certain degree of firmness and unevenness, he indicated the Pro-Ride surface might undergo an unanticipated maintenance procedure as frequently as biweekly. Handicappers can anticipate the corresponding changes in the surface, variants, and probably in the track profiles.

The reliance on pace figures as not nearly as reliable on synthetic surfaces as on dirt has been emphasized previously, but bears repeating as the interaction of weather systems, training regimens, and now newly fashioned maintenance procedures renders these surfaces slower and ever more tiring. Jockeys have exhibited a tendency to take firmer holds of front-runners and pace-pressers early. Suspiciously soft pace figures may be a function of riding tactics, not of a horse's inability to run fast early and still finish fast. At Santa Anita it will be more difficult to determine whether 3-year-olds moving ahead to the stakes and derbies with below-par pace figures at the lower levels should be abandoned.

The remedy now is fundamental; that is, pace analysis must supersede pace figures. Cheap speed - of which there is quite an abundance at Santa Anita - will usually expire, and though quality speed can prevail wire to wire, a fast, contested pace - even between two impressive front-runners - will likely result in an off-pace winner. As not before, off-pace horses having unusually low pace figures might be expected to win their fair share. In numerous situations, in routes notably, handicappers best focus on the closers with even a mild class edge.

Now we attend to the all-purpose, all-encompassing solution.

Bet Rios and cash

Jockey Jesus Rios won the first race at Santa Anita on Jan. 29, on a horse that paid $51.20. The wire-to-wire winner by a half-furlong was Seven Below, a seven-time loser at the level and 15-1 on the morning line. Seven Below may be the first of Rios's high-paying winners at Santa Anita, but the gelding will be far, far from his last. Most will not pay $51.20, but a few may pay twice as much and the majority will go at double-digit odds. The circumstance can provide a bonanza for alert handicappers.

Rios arrived here as a 26-year-old emigre from Puerto Rico, where he had won several riding titles. He has moved to Southern California following an extended recruitment effort by the excellent agent Tony Matos, whose previous clients included Angel Cordero Jr. and Laffit Pincay. Begging comparisons with those all-time cracks, Matos has assures anyone who will listen that Rios is as polished and rugged as they come, and that he can finish with any rider.

In his first ride, Rios finished second at 13-1. He was 0 for 16 with 2 seconds and 3 thirds until he won in the sixth race on Jan. 29 - but none of the horses he rode went off below 10-1, and as a colleague observed, Rios's horses have outrun their odds without exception.

Presto, the practical solution to handicapping woes at Santa Anita, and extending to Hollywood Park and Del Mar if the Rios stays, is to bet blindly on each of his mounts that go off at a predetermined odds line, say 8-1.

There is a persuasive precedent recently: Joel Rosario, who is currently alongside Garrett Gomez and Rafael Bejarano atop the jockey standing, but was a no-name 19-year-old out of the Dominican Republic a year ago. Rosario was talented, hungry, and determined to make his mark, and he benefited from the mystique of all leading rider - horses run for him. He also displayed remarkable timing and finishing skill from far off the pace, including on the turf.

The smartest tactic handicappers might have used at Santa Anita in 2008 was a blind bet on every horse Rosario rode at odds of 5-1 and greater. The colleague who pointed out how Rios's runners have outrun their odds repeatedly did exactly that last season at $20 flat wins bets. And of mid-April his profit was no less than $4,380. For all 2008, Rosario had a 14 percent win percentage, thus the 5-1 dividing line.

The dividing line for backing Rios's mounts may be higher to begin, perhaps 8-1, as his opportunities will be scarce and his runners chances of winning long. Nonetheless, some of the horses will win. Later the line may drop to the more accommodating 5-1, provided the Puerto-Rican star can accumulate a strike rate near 15 percent. If Rios is as good as Matos has insisted, it should happen. At 0 for 16 before he struck, a $20 win-wager on Rios per start would have lost $320 - an amount immediately erased by the $51.20 mutuel, and instantly a profit margin of $192. That profit will grow, it is predicted here.

The key to success will be difficult for numerous handicappers to implement. The bet must be blind. A system is a system is a system is a system. No handicapping allowed.

Rosario booted home a hopeless hulk that paid something like $168 last winter and no handicapper could find the winner in the past performances afterwards. But horses have run for Rosario, and they will run for Rios. Santa Anita cards a high ratio of cheap races nowadays, and Rios will be gunning all out on longshots in virtually all of them. He will prod his longshots to move up by many lengths, and several should get there at boxcar mutuels.

For believers, it's the simple solution to a wonderful winter-spring season, after all.