One continuing challenge facing handicappers at Oaklawn Park, and at every racetrack for that matter, involves horses who are making their first career start.
Trying to analyze a race filled with first-time starters, or even one or two, can be an annoying guessing game for the horseplayer.
Well, not so much this year.
Nine days into the 2014 season it looks like all you have to do is find a first-time starter trained by Cody Autrey, owned by James L & Ywachetta H Driver and ridden by Norberto Arroyo, Jr.
Autrey is off to a sizzling start at Oaklawn for the third consecutive season, winning with 10 of his first 26 starters. Autrey won 6 of his first 18 races after nine racing days last season and was 7 of 17 after nine days in 2012.
The big difference for Autrey over the past two years is his success with first-time starers. He was 10 of 70 from 2002-2012, but that was when he was working more with older claiming horses.
Autrey won with 6 of 11 first-time starters in 2013, including 4 of 7 at Oaklawn, and nine days into the 2014 season Autrey is 3 for 3 with his first-tme starters, giving him an previously unseen 70-percent winning percentage (7 of 10) with his Oaklawn first-time starters the past two seasons.
There is a pattern to Autrey's success.
All of his winning first-time starters — 3-year-old fillies My Sister's Secret and Chismosa and a 3-year colt, Paganol — were purchased at the 2013 Ocala Breeders' sale by the Drivers, ridden by newcomer Arroyo, and patiently prepared by Autrey.
All three posted a string of workouts dating back to the summer at Betfair Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. Autrey then brought his 2-year-olds to Evangeline training center in southern Louisiana for more seasoning before shipping up to Oaklawn, where Paganol worked twice and the fillies had three workouts.
Paganol, a Kentucky-bred son of Tiz Wonderful, a $250,000 purchase, struck first in a maiden special weight sprint on Jan. 11, the second day of the meet, circled the field after a slow start to win the ninth race by a nose at odds of 7.60 to 1.
One week later, Chismosa, a $40,000 purchase by the Drivers, led from the start to win in a $16,000 maiden claimer. Chismosa, a Florida-bred by Exclusive Quality, showed 5 workouts at Hollywood Park, 4 at Evangeline and 3 at Oaklawn. She was no secret, winning as the 2-1 favorite, and was claimed out of the race by Lynn Whiting for Choctow Stables.
Winner No. 3 came about 24 hours later when My Sister's Secret, a training partner of Chismosa, set some of the fastest fractions ever seen at Oaklawn so early in the meet, blazing an opening quarter of 21.32 and a 45.19 half mile to win by 51/2 lengths as the 5-2 second choice. The only difference between My Sister's Secret and Chismosa was that My Sister's Secret posted a July 17 work from the gate at prestigious Del Mar, but Autrey waited until Sunday to unleash her — and lose her — to trainer Chris Block, for $30,000.
All told, 4 of the 43 first-time starters to run during the first nine days have won (9.3 percent), which doesn't sound all that impressive.
But what's significant is that first-time starters, and that counts the three Autrey winners and one from Ernie Witt II, have accounted for victories in 4 of the 14 races in which at least one first-timer has been entered, 28.5 percent, and they've hit the board 13 times in those 14 races, a 30.9 in-the-money percentage.
Analyzing first-time starters normally requires a handicapper to delve beyond the standard interpretation of speed figures, class drops and equipment changes.
A handicapper must understand and utilize information from different facets of the game, like knowing if a trainer regularly, or even sometimes, wins with debut horses. Knowing what sires produce early winners is also helpful, as well as knowing something about the first-time starter's dam.
Then, there is the ability to interpret workout patterns, and the willingness to watch the toteboard for wagering that doesn’t seem in line with the connections of the horse.
Or, you can just look for an Autrey horse and started walking to the window.