Eliminating losers

Updated: September 21, 2006, 10:56 AM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

Last night I watched a 2-1 horse with a great last line run like Aunt Martha, which is to say without interest, and I thought that I had seen that somewhere before. Who hasn't seen a short-priced horse with a good figure run you home early.

But if short-priced horses run lousily for the same reason, then we're getting somewhere.

Stories on handicapping should be called variations of the theme: Eliminating Losers.

Horses can improve by leaps and lengths on paper. What looks bad the first time through the past performances can appear more likely once you eliminate what can't win.

It doesn't take an Ivy Leaguer to eliminate truly unsteady horses. Just the other day at the races, I sat next to a man who looked at a horse that had run last or next to last in his most recent six, and the gentleman said to me, 'I don't like his chances.' Sure enough, the horse ran third from the bottom. But eliminating horses that look playable and attract money and don't figure to win, that's why we're here instead of playing the one-eyed bandits, the slot machine buttons.

Just a little, tiny, harmless-looking, simple, fairly reliable edge, that's all a horseplayer needs.

An edge is something that happens consistently and isn't common knowledge.

An edge at cards is reliable. Cards don't change their spots.

Horses sometimes hop imaginary images.

Still and all, here's something edgy, something that has saved me some money. Money saved is money made. At the horse races, money saved is where you take money off a short-priced that shouldn't win and place some of it on a well-paying horse that has a better chance.

This is about layoffs.

A layoff is a constant element of horse racing.

Back in one of the days, playing a long layoff was considered a tourist's trip.

Anymore, horses come back after six months with more private works than you can shake a rolled-up Form at and frequently win for fun, if you had bet them. I know a man who bets a buck or two on long layoffs and has more money than he came with.

For the purpose of this piece, I consider layoffs to be in these groups: long, medium, and normal racing-cycle layoffs.

The long and short of the three layoff types are typically tough to predict. But horses coming off mid-range layoffs of two months or so tend to race well behind their odds.

There are two exceptions to horses running with sorry form after two-or-so-month layoffs. One is a trainer change. A new trainer needs time to find his way with a horse. I've seen horses run tough after a couple of months off when there's a trainer improvement. Another exception is the beautifully-bred, high dollar horse - many of that kind seem to stay in constant states or readiness.

But short-priced horses with good last lines and the same connections coming back after a couple of months off, they perform like you or I do after a three-day weekend.

You come back like, who needs it.