02/13/2007 1:00AM

To win, you need longshots

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When Subway sandwich shop owner Stanley Bavlish won the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas last month, his big move to the top was spearheaded by the seemingly improbable victory of McCann's Mojave in the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream Park.

As is so often the case with tournament winners, McCann's Mojave paid a huge price (capped in the contest at $42). Longshots are the bread and butter of tournament handicapping. Without longshots, it is next to impossible to make a serious bid, much less win a tournament. In Bavlish's case, McCann's Mojave was followed by a $25 winner in a late race at Santa Anita that put him over the top.

Well, guess what. Even though tournaments place such a premium on catching juicy prices, the same need to catch longshots is fundamental to winning serious money at the track.

In the contemporary world of racetrack betting, the general public is more in tune with logical, low-priced contenders than ever before, and we are all vulnerable to the exorbitant takeouts in nearly every racing state.

Winning at the track in the modern age is linked to catching big scores, not a steady stream of $6 to $10 payoffs. That said, playing in handicapping tournaments is an ideal way to sharpen one's longshot hunting skills. That is one reason why I will be playing in the Autotote Handicapping Tournament in New Haven on Feb. 24-25, one of the first major tournaments of 2007 to offer qualifying seats to the lucrative DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship that will be held next winter.

In the meantime, it might be of some value to focus on some contrarian handicapping angles that can point out a horse on the verge of a wake-up call, or a much improved race. Here are a few that regularly occur in popular race situations.

In the case of absentees, for instance, there are trainers who specialize in getting such horses ready to fire in their first start back, but most of them attract significant mutuel play. For price-getting potential, I suggest taking a closer look at any absentee that finished his previous form cycle with a bad or disappointing race who is entered today in a race that looks to be his previous best distance, surface, and/or class level.

Rationale: Such horses may be tossed by many, but may also show steady workouts and be ridden by a solid jockey, or the jockey who rode the horse in a good prior performance. A good example of this was McNasty, winner of a Cal-bred allowance sprint at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 10 in his first start back after 90 days off. He paid a very respectable $14.60.

Low-level claiming sprints also tend to present live longshot plays. Among many price-getting angles that apply to this circumstance, here are two that have three connected parts. One involves a horse obviously in sharp form stepping up in class; the other is singled out by hints of winning form that have yet to occur.

In the case of a recent low-level claiming winner (or sharp second-place finisher), close attention should be given to horses moving up noticeably in class, while the new class level is still below the horse's previous winning level a few months ago. It also is helpful to see that a high-percentage trainer is making this sensible move.

Rationale: It is an expression of confidence when a winning trainer moves a horse back up in class after dropping it for a much improved performance. Golden Wager, trained by Jeff Mullins and winner of the eighth race at Santa Anita on Feb. 10, is a pluperfect illustration of this productive angle, and if you consider that Santa Anita's bottom level is $10,000, the rise after a win for $6,500 at Golden Gate Fields was an illusion. He paid $16.60.

The following three-pronged angle can occur in any race at any distance:

* Signs of some speed in two or a few consecutive outings without any layoff lines to indicate significant gaps between starts.

* A win or two at the same approximate distance, at the same level and/or higher, among the horse's past performances several months ago, or in the prior year.

* A winning trainer and/or a strong winning jockey/trainer relationship.

Rationale: A horse that is in regular training and is making bids is a horse that can put it all together against similar company without further warning.

The presence of a previous win and a positive trainer/jockey combo should reinforce this possibility of a wake-up at inflated odds. An excellent example of such a horse with the appropriate clues was Snazzy Leon, winner of an $8,000 claiming route at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 14 after three races in which he made early bids before tiring. The payoff was an astonishing $48.20.

Season Ticket, winner of an allowance sprint at Laurel Park on Jan. 7, was another with this pattern at an equally astounding $30.40. This in a five-horse field with no reasonable favorite that deserved serious support.

Obviously, turf races and stakes with large fields will provide plenty of price-getting opportunities, and there are dozens of additional price-getting notions that could be included here. But as a general rule, the most promising longshots usually fall into one of two categories.

They are either returning to a comfortable level or class and/or racing surface, after several failures; or they are trying something new that their breeding and/or training suggest they will love.

Aside from having an arsenal of angles that go against the grain of traditional handicapping, it is equally important to dig into races when the public betting favorite is vastly overrated or facing a difficult predicament.

For example, when the DRF/NTRA tourney was being decided, credit Stanley Bavlish for not only picking a sharp horse stepping up in class, but for realizing that the heavy favorite Sweetnorthernsaint was going to have a difficult time handling a poor outside post position in the two-turn Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park.

Steve Davidowitz will host a handicapping seminar and a book signing for "The Best and Worst of Thoroughbred Racing" at 11 a.m. on Feb. 25 at the New Haven Autotote facility.