Updated on 09/17/2011 10:03PM

When tote board talks, pay attention


ARCADIA, Calif. - In the category of slow maidens, fit right in. A 5-year-old mare from Argentina, she had been ignored by bettors in all three of her starts and summarily trounced each time.

So when race 9, a $25,000 maiden claiming sprint at Santa Anita rolled around last Sunday, Baska Juanita was an easy one to throw out. Or so it appeared.

On paper, the only handicapping certainty was that the field for the seven-furlong race was bad, and that included the favorite. Memorly was 6-5 from an outside post on an inside-biased track; she had little speed, and minimal advantage on figures.

On the odds board, Memorly was the only contender getting any action. Yet an apparent non-contender - Baska Juanita - was taking unusual wagering action.

Based on her past performances, Baska Juanita's odds might have been 50-1 or higher. Surprisingly, when the field came onto the track, she had been bet from a morning line of 30-1 down to 15-1. Why?

Nothing in her past performances suggested reason for parimutuel support. Her workouts since she last raced were slow. There was no change in equipment, distance, or surface. There was no reason to expect Baska Juanita to improve. But the surprise betting action was unmistakable. Somebody liked something about Baska Juanita.

Did it mean anything? And if so, what?

The action suggested there was more to her story than her racing history. The tote board, beyond providing probable payoffs, reveals "potential" information. It can alert bettors to the possible existence of factors not previously considered.

That is the extent of sensible tote-board analysis. When a horse's odds are significantly lower (or higher) than expected, it can mean that the betting public - the market - has factored in information that is not immediately obvious. It might mean there are factors an individual handicapper didn't know about or overlooked.

Make no mistake - analyzing the odds board can get a horseplayer in a heap of trouble. Some bettors monitor the board for odds fluctuations to determine if the so-called "smart money" has entered the pool. The concept is ridiculous, and reduces the art of handicapping to random gambling. Individual bettors unable to make personal wagering decisions without consulting the direction of the "smart money" will be forever lost, even while following the crowd.

It is downright stubborn, however, to ignore unusual betting action without considering the possibility the action is meaningful. When a horse's odds are out of whack, bettors should ask why. Backing a high-odds horse is acceptable, even recommended, as long as one understands the reasons the horse is being ignored by others.

Similarly, when a horse's attributes are not clear, a bettor should recognize lopsided action. It was happening to Juan Reviriego-trained Baska Juanita on March 20, in the third start of her form cycle. There had to be a story behind the betting. With 10 minutes to post, horseplayers did not have time to learn what it was.

Otherwise, bettors might have recalled two similar instances last summer at Del Mar when Reviriego imports from Argentina, ridden by Goncalino Almeida, produced form reversals in maiden claiming races while making the third start of their form cycle. On Aug. 1, Culmen ripped to a four-length victory at 33-1. Less than two weeks later on Aug. 13, Aircobra ran a career best when she finished second at 22-1. Both improved their Beyer Figure more than 20 points; both went to post at lower odds than their previous start.

Baska Juanita fit the same pattern. She was set up for a score in her third start back. Almeida described her performances in her two previous U.S. starts.

"The first race she ran very good," said Almeida, referring to a sixth-place finish with trouble. "The second race, the track was so hard; she did not run good because they sealed the track. She came back and she was very improved after the race."

Though her improvement did not show on paper, it showed on the board. The odds signaled what her jockey and trainer later explained. Reviriego is a native of Argentina who has been a trainer, assistant trainer, jockey, jockey agent, and bloodstock agent. He knows his way around a racehorse.

He said Baska Juanita broke poorly in her comeback due to memory of a gate incident in which she was injured. Nevertheless, Reviriego was satisfied with her sixth-place finish. But "when I put her in the second race [Feb. 6], the track was too hard."

An older maiden with a problem ankle and back, Baska Juanita continued to rack up expenses.

"After the race, I said, 'I cannot spend a lot of money on this filly. We'll try [one more time].' "

On March 17, three days before Baska Juanita ran, her ankles were drained of excess fluid. She received additional veterinary treatment, and was primed for Sunday. It was now or never.

"The last week she was feeling better, so I bet something," Reviriego said. "I bet a little bit, not much."

It showed on the board. Baska Juanita had been bet down to 15-1.

The field loaded into the starting gate. Then the worst thing that could happen to Baska Juanita did happen. She already was leery of the gate, and two stalls inside her, another horse threw a fit and had to be scratched.

Baska Juanita and the others were unloaded. Her odds drifted up, slightly. She reloaded. The gates opened and Baska Juanita broke slowly, again. She inched closer into the turn, established position midpack, rallied wide into the lane, and then...lost her punch.

At odds of 21-1, Baska Juanita finished second. The gamble did not land. But her tote-board story was based in fact - someone liked something about Baska Juanita, and they were right.

But she was still a slow maiden in a weak category. And on March 20, Baska Juanita was simply second best.