Basic training

Horse race handicapping for dummies is also horse race handicapping for geniuses.

Veterans and boozers, suckers and tipsters, rookies and trainers alike, most horse players make handicapping much harder than it should be.

As complicated as a horse race is, winners have similar patterns.

As each three-year old season begins, I go over notes and bets from the previous year, looking for mistakes to avoid, and hauls to reprise.

Surprisingly enough, the essential elements to winning seem to carry over from one term to the next. Whereas the game has changed, with the sometimes ruthless over-training of the young ones, causing brief careers and iffy credentials to be brought to the breeding shed hay, successful handicapping fundamentals haven't changed much.

There's enough that can't be predicted, from bad breaks to brainless rides.

We need to take what record gives us.

Here's some of what paid off last year, successful handicapping tools that had carried over from the year before, and the year before that, etc.

Layoffs matter
Avoiding horses that hadn't run in 30 days was on all the old school how-to or how-not-to lists. Guess what. The 80-year olds are still winning money. Awkward layoffs, breaks in racing patterns, produce losers by the score. If you can't think of a good reason why a horse has been off six weeks, the vet knows, so forget it. Even explained absences can be tough plays against fresh horses. True, some trainers excel in bringing horses back to the track. Would that we had known what was coming before those races. There are stories worth learning behind the best stats, field size, levels of competition. Look at it this way this spring. Who among us doesn't need a race.

Racing surfaces matter
According to my records, horses win two in a row so infrequently on alternating dry and wet conditions that I wouldn't bet money found under a car tire on such an occasion. Nothing inflates a Beyer number more than wet conditions, short fields, or grass. Similarly, rotten runs on an off track usually mean nothing when it's dry. Speed biases are common knowledge. What many pickers fail to mention is that few speed biases can survive heated company.

Trouble matters
In a way. Experiencing trouble while bumbling along sixth on the backside doesn't mean a horse would have won. Overcoming trouble, or almost doing so, is a horse of a better color. I'll never forget the first time I caught sight of Big Drama, blasting his way through a roller derby-type scrum to win a race at Delta Downs. This event speaks well of big horses going rich, big slot machine purses in necks of the woods or elbows of the swamp. Full-field competition in places like Oaklawn has come to mean more than a few BFF's hanging together on a coast.

Improvement matters
The top Beyer is usually the favorite in Louisville in May, and loses. Flashy Beyer numbers from four-horse fields in New York or six-horse fields in California don't translate well to Kentucky. We already know who will win the Derby. It will be an improving horse with regularly spaced races, as lightly raced as possible within the qualifying rules, Beyer numbers ticking up throughout the spring. He or she will have run fifth on an off track, or fourth from an inferior post and all the wrong pacing. He or she will be neither speedy nor late, and will possess the classic stalking style, featuring the one big move on the turn and oxygen enough to fuel the way home.

It seems simple enough now.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.