Commentary

Need

Updated: April 16, 2012, 5:13 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

This is an unfortunate racing story that happens frequently.

I bet $84 on a 5-1 shot looking for a Derby stake and heard somebody with the horse say after it ran closer to last than first that it sure had needed that race, all right.

That's a bonus from small-track racing, you can hear things. Hanging around a lightly populated paddock, or a workers-only finish line area after a race, it's like watching a basketball game between dogs when the arena lacks a crowd and you can hear a coach say to an assistant midway through the first half, "Where do you want to eat after this mess?"

Concerning the horse that had needed a race, it hadn't said anything like this on the past performances: Apt to need one before reaching its full potential. Down-track from the finish line, where losers slip out of their gear and are hustled off as though nobody had run about the worst ever, I seemed to be the only one who had been unaware that this animal had just performed a glorified workout.

I called over the rail to suggest that the next time a horse from that barn needed a race, somebody should tug twice at his or her left ear in the paddock. I also said that the people at the windows weren't applying for jobs or flirting. We were betting money that could have gone for something with better odds of winning, like the lottery. Two of the people with the horse spoke softly to one another, then began looking around as though for a security guard. So I took the $84 worth of tickets to the IRS/Lessons Learned cowboy boot box.

Imagine some NFL coach telling the media and the Vegas bettors that his team had needed the game they just lost, they'd try harder next week. Imagine a spouse telling the judge that he or she needed a marriage, now hand over half. True, "needing a race" doesn't always mean a lack of effort. Sometimes horses off four months are rusty. Sometimes they win by ten and pay $30.

Sending a horse out to race its way into condition is a perfectly understandable and legit training technique.

So how do you handicap the unknown?

Horses that might need a race are coming off a change of pace, a layoff, new connections, a different track. Play them all. Pass on them all. Better still, handicap the trainers. You have to play a horse you liked before a "needed" race when it comes back. It is educational to note that the odds are almost always higher the time after a horse needed a race.

Another example of handicapping what amounts to thin air is the late Derby run: You're handicapping the Derby trail, the experience, not what's on the Form, not the actual races themselves.

Imagine that you had a horse that had qualified for the Derby with money won, but still had a race to run before the first Saturday in May: You needed the race, the competition, the conditioning, but not the first place cash. Would you have the horse taken flat-out toward the win and possibly risk still-growing bone, and a developing running style, and the animal's fragile psyche? Or would you give these instructions to the jockey: Run hard. Maintain the style that could win us the Derby. Don't fall off. See you later.

Whereas you can't blame a horse for winning, for running just fast enough to beat them all time after time, speed number no matter, you can't blame a horse for not winning when it doesn't have to. So sometimes, with the late Derby prep races in particular, you have to handicap need.

Another experience in handicapping the unknown is handicapping the subculture of horse racing.

There's no line comment: Ran like he was on something illegal.

Frequently, the search for winners involves more psychology than numbers.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@yahoo.com.