05/11/2005 11:00PM

Using physical analysis to avoid bad bets

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Twice each year - at the Kentucky Derby in spring and Breeders' Cup in fall - horseplayers are inundated with overly buoyant physicality analyses of good horses who look and train like, well, good horses. Yet last week, viewers monitoring the TVG television show "The Works" could have found a nugget or two.

In a sport frequently void of honest criticism, few qualified analysts have the courage or conviction to disparage a horse's workout demeanor. So it was refreshing when analysts Tom Amoss and Frank Lyons on TVG saw reason to knock Oaks starter Runway Model and Derby starter Greater Good.

Most of the Oaks and Derby starters were training well. But when the TVG analysts were critical of works by Runway Model and Greater Good, it was hard not to pay attention. Bettors who trusted that the negative workout analyses were a sign of declining form may have avoided two losers. Runway Model finished next-to-last as the 5-1 third choice in the Oaks; Greater Good finished 13th in the Derby, at odds of 58-1.

It will be more than five months until TVG airs another "The Works," leading to the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park. Even then, scheduling constraints limit physicality coverage to recorded video of morning works. Yet body-language inspection remains a prime consideration, even for handicappers who are not at the racetrack.

In this simulcast age, ontrack handle is less than 20 percent of total handle. Most money is wagered "blind" by bettors who rarely, if ever, see the actual horses they are betting on. But physicality handicapping is not a lost art, and one West Coast service - Southern California Horses to Watch - has entered uncharted territory by providing real-time physicality analysis when it can be most important - in the final minutes to post.

Physicality handicapping involves interpretation of a horse's body language, attitude, equipment, and infirmities. Horses who look bad often run bad. The most conspicuous defect is when a horse gets hot, or washes out. Excessive perspiration through the flanks or kidney sweat dripping down the inside of back legs can mean a horse is overly nervous and expending his energy before the race. Anyone can see that.

Other signals are subtle, such as "walking short." When a horse walks well, in its natural gait, its rear hooves extend past the hoof prints left by its front feet. But when the rear hooves do not extend past the front prints, the horse is walking short. It means the horse is not extending properly; they win less than their fair share. The challenge for bettors is spotting the flaw while playing from a simulcast facility or home computer.

Joe Takach has been monitoring body language of racehorses for decades. Since 1993 his Southern California Horses to Watch publication has provided constructive, informative analysis regarding equine body language of the Southern California horse inventory. Now, Takach has taken his services online, in real time.

Can't be on track? No problem. Takach is a bettor's eyes and ears. He informs Internet subscribers if a horse walks short in the paddock. Takach informs when a horse's ears are pinned, which can signal a bad attitude and increased chance of a poor effort. Takach reports new quarter cracks and bar shoes on problematic feet; patches on inside legs that indicate a horse is hitting himself; and bowed tendons.

Takach also tells subscribers when a horse's appearance has changed from its last start. If so, a horse's performance might also change, for better or worse. The dilemma is most horseplayers are either unqualified or unable to see the change, and interpret its meaning.

Takach sells his real-time analyses at www.joe-takach.com. The challenge in employing physicality analyses is the same as using workout analyses from a clocker. The tendency is to put excessive significance on the supplemental information.

"We're not trying to teach people how to handicap, we're just showing you what else is there," Takach said. "When we sign up a new customer, we go out of our way to tell them to not change one thing in their methodology."

In other words, do not allow physicality to supersede the handicapping fundamentals of condition, class, speed, and pace.

"Our service is to supplement handicapping, not to replace it," Takach said. "And there are times we look like [dummies]."

Insight to current condition is what Takach does best. While a horse's past performances provide most of the information a handicapper needs regarding current form, horses do change. The information Takach relays include enlarged ankles, fresh bowed tendons, weight gain or loss, overall attitude, prerace warm-up and post-race gallop-out. It's a lot to digest in the minutes before a race.

Takach and his seven-member staff offer relevant, real-time information that is posted on his website in the half-hour from the horses reaching the paddock to moments before post time. The amount of information is amazing. Takach provides the look and feel of an ontrack experience as it relates to physicality. The material is updated every few minutes.

When physicality inspection is combined with the handicapping basics, it can save horseplayers from making bad bets.

"That's always been our primary focus," Takach said.

In addition to real-time service, Horses to Watch subscribers receive a daily report that details what a horse looked like last time out. Was the horse wearing bar shoes? What was his paddock demeanor? Did the horse look good, and was the horse carrying sufficient weight? When the horse's last-start physicality analysis is compared with the real-time report, a clear picture can emerge.

Demand for Horses to Watch has increased, and Takach said his subscribers are based coast to coast. Soon, his operation will be also. Takach plans to expand to New York, Florida, and Kentucky in the next two years, offering physicality information on those circuits.

Physicality handicapping does not replace the nuts-and-bolts fundamentals, but there is no doubting its value. When physicality is considered along with a horse's racing history, it works. And ultimately, the Takach/Horses to Watch service works also - by saving players from bad bets on horses whose form is headed the wrong way.