12/31/2007 12:00AM

What did you learn in 2007?

EmailAt the start of any new year, most players are ready to trade in a season of near-misses and bad beats for a fresh start. But horseplayers hoping to put a new spin on their approach probably should first review a few handicapping lessons from the preceding 12 months.

For instance, is there a horseplayer in America who still believes that a Kentucky Derby contender "must have at least three prep races" before he can possibly win the sport's most difficult 1 1/4-mile race?

Perhaps three or four preps still would be preferable for most 3-year-old horses, but Carl Nafzger's deft handling of 2006 juvenile champion Street Sense was convincing evidence that a 3-year-old stakes winner with a good 2-year-old foundation can win the Derby with two well-planned distance races in March and April.

We also should remember that this twist to Derby handicapping came only a year after trainer Michael Matz demolished another dubious handicapping bromide when he brought undefeated Barbaro to Churchill Downs ready to run a magnificent race off a dreaded five-week layoff.

Beyond the Kentucky Derby, we also saw two outstanding 3-year-olds defy recent history by winning Triple Crown races in 2007 despite having little or no racing experience as 2-year-olds.

Preakness winner Curlin made his career debut in a six-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 7, 2007 for trainer Helen Pitts, a former assistant to Ken McPeek. Remarkably, after Curlin was sold for an estimated $3 million to new owners, he was ready to win the one-mile Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park six weeks later for new trainer Steve Asmussen.

Curlin's Horse of the Year campaign has been well chronicled, but few handicappers may recall that dozens of experts openly predicted his fall from national prominence during the second half of the year due to his "rushed" and "highly compressed" campaign. This, for a strongly built, maturing colt who would rebound from a weak third in the Haskell during the summer to defeat the older horse Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before posting a dominating score in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Likewise, the high-class filly Rags to Riches - who had one race in 2006 and began 2007 with a maiden victory in January - was widely dismissed as a serious Belmont Stakes contender strictly because of her sex. This, for a large bodied, perfectly prepared, once-beaten Thoroughbred whose half-brother Jazil won the 2006 Belmont!

Taken together, all this can be reduced to a new handicapping perspective for the 2008 Triple Crown and beyond: Top-class horses in top-class hands do not have to be trained in any specific manner. Where top equine and human talent are linked together, the only disqualifying issue is physical injury or a series of unexpected hiccups.

Beyond these subtle new twists to the annual Triple Crown puzzle, the accelerated infusion of synthetic tracks into the handicapping equation is another highly publicized area that deserves some review. Frankly, a large percentage of horseplayers continue to admit frustration over the way the synthetic surfaces are changing their games.

One of the most confusing synthetic tracks was Del Mar, which played several seconds slower than normal in the afternoons after playing considerably faster during morning training hours. But sometimes it takes a full race meet or longer to see a trend. Sometimes a trend does not take shape until after horses leave town and go elsewhere.

Such seemed to be the case at Del Mar, where all may not have been as wacky as it appeared during the race meet. At least not for horses who ran on the Del Mar Polytrack and returned to perform at other tracks on the Southern California circuit.

Probably because the Del Mar surface was so slow and tiring, it served to boost the overall conditioning of horses who performed over it. This intuitive dimension to the 2007 Del Mar meet actually can be verified by the high percentage of horses who improved significantly in their next outings after turning in weak or losing races at Del Mar.

For just a small sampling of this phenomenon, here are all of the horses who fit the profile who ran during the first three days of the current Santa Anita meet. The statistics are as dramatic as any similar comparison I have ever researched.

On Dec. 26, opening day at Santa Anita, there were 23 horses out of 27 who had raced on the Del Mar Polytrack who had improved their finishing position or their Beyer Speed Figure in their next outing after racing at Del Mar. Even one of the horses that did not improve in his next outing - Bob Black Jack, a Del Mar maiden winner - was fourth in the Grade 2 Hollywood Prevue before he won the $125,000 Cal Breeders' Stakes by 6 1/2 lengths on the opening-day card.

On Dec. 28, the second day of racing at Santa Anita, 25 of the 31 horses who had raced on the Del Mar Polytrack improved their finishing position or Beyer Fig in their next outing elsewhere. Included among these were Furioso Star, who won the seventh race on this racing card at 9-1, his first outing since an eighth-place finish at Del Mar. One of the six exceptions - A Song at Twilight - left Del Mar with a third- and a fourth-place finish in a pair of maiden claiming races, only to need three outings before running third at 54-1, then posting a winning race on the Dec. 28 Santa Anita card at 34-1.

On Dec. 29, the 10-race Santa Anita card included 32 such horses that had raced on the synthetic track at Del Mar and 25 improved their performance in their very next start on a different surface.

The past performances for a few of these horses indicate that they came back to win at outrageous prices, including Wings of Freedom at 15-1 in an Oak Tree sprint after fading badly in her Del Mar finale. Another filly, Dearest Trickski, was second in a $20,000 claiming sprint in her Del Mar debut when claimed by John Sadler, but improved to win a $50,000 claimer for her new trainer on Sept. 1 before winning two more at Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park. Those three straight wins however, were just a prelude to Dearest Trickski's victory in the Grade 1, $250,000 LaBrea Stakes on Dec. 29.

At the bottom line, my research confirmed that this pattern of improvement over Del Mar form was seen in a high percentage of cases throughout the Oak Tree and Hollywood meets. While similar improvement may occur when horses ship from other synthetic tracks, there are no supporting stats yet to back up that notion. In the meantime, the lesson gleaned from studying the 2007 Del Mar improvement angle is strong enough to suggest that it will be an important handicapping tool in 2008.