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AH, SPRING. The season of fresh starts and new beginnings. And, of course, new approaches to picking winners at Buffalo Raceway.

As regular readers know, the Happy Handicapper has long been a fan of playing horses that have recently been claimed and are now racing for a new owner and trainer.

He figures the fact that somebody has put up cash to buy a horse out of a race is a positive sign that the animal has a better-than-average chance of winning in the future. Also, as many trainers point out, many horses tend to "wake up" when they change routines, feed, equipment, medication, grooms and other things that go with entering new surroundings.

This "new barn" theory, of course, is no big secret. Everybody knows about it and it's easy to find recently claimed horses in the printed program since they're marked with a little black square.

But in the past few months, the H.H. has been having success with a quieter version of this "fresh start" approach. He's been cashing some nice tickets on horses that change owners privately, without any notation in the program.

It all started for him back in late January when he chatted with trainer John Leggio about his charges. Leggio mentioned that he had just obtained a 9-year-old pacer named Cam's Lucky in a trade with another trainer.

The H.H. found this interesting and, on Jan. 28, he bet on Cam's Lucky, who won as a 2-5 favorite at the rock-bottom "$3,000 claimers, non-winners of $200 in last four starts" class.

The H.H. decided to keep following the horse as Leggio raised him in class. He has not been disappointed. Between Feb. 16 and March 18, Cam's Lucky won five straight races, paying an average of $17 for each $2 win wager. He's also been the top horse on five exactas that returned an average of $84.

As his success with Cam's Lucky increased, the H.H. decided to make a concerted effort to sniff out other "new barn" horses. It's not an easy task. Although the driver for each previous race is listed in the past performance lines, there is no information about past owners and trainers. To keep track of barn changes, you have to keep a stack of old programs and look up previous connections in search of new names.

It was hard work, but it paid off when he spotted a 7-year-old gelding named GE's Apollo.

On Feb. 24, when he finished fifth as the 9-5 favorite, GE's Apollo was listed as owned by Gene Sachman of West Seneca, trained by James Tronolone and driven by Dan Yetman. But on March 3, he showed up in the hands of a new trainer, Debra Gampietro.

GE's Apollo finished eighth that night, but six days later Gampietro hired a new driver, Jack Flanigen, who scored a front-running victory from Post No. 8 for a $50 win payoff and a $648 exacta.

Although Cam's Lucky and GE's Apollo have been the best recent examples of "new barn" winners, a quick search through the programs reveals several others, including the following, who could have been found with some diligence.

CP Surenuff: On Feb. 1 he won and paid $4.60 for trainer Ken Koch, driver Jack Flanigen and owners Frank Masella Jr. and Joseph Matte. On Feb. 9, he raced under trainer Jamie Dunlap, who drove him to a $31.40 win. Nine days later, he won again at $4.10.

Delmuroy, the horse traded by Leggio for Cam's Lucky, finished eighth and seventh in his first two starts for trainer Chris Maser and owner Carmen Vecchiarella. But on Feb. 22 he showed up with Mike Moran listed as trainer. He finished third for Moran on Feb. 22 and then won as the even-money favorite ($4) on March 3.

Dignity Breeze: This 4-year-old mare, owned by Daniel J. Bridge of Elba, won on March 17 and paid $15 in her first start since Dec. 17. In December, she was trained and driven by currently suspended Don Rothfuss, but now she's trained by Gordon Shaffer and driven by his son, Joe.

Dydx: On Jan. 27, the 6-year-old gelding finished fifth for owner Diane Gauthier, trainer Dave Spaziano and driver Patsy C. Rapone. Next out, on Feb. 8, he was in Leggio's barn and owned by Gloria Jean Ricci and trained by Leggio. He won and paid $5.30.

JMP: This trotting mare owned by James R. Romano and Margaret M. Fisher of LeRoy was trained and driven without much success by Paul Zambito Jr. On Jan. 11, she was switched to trainer Frank Mastrodonato, who put Don Rothfuss in the sulky. On Feb. 1, in her third race for the new trainer, she won and paid $8.80 in a lifetime-best 2:10 1/5 mile. She also won March 2 and paid $6.30.

Jumbo Rehab: Same story as CP Surenuff. Owners Masella and Matte had this 4-year-old pacer with Ken Koch until Jan. 26, when he showed up under Jamie Dunlap. Four starts later he won for $19.80 and topped a $135 exacta. Four starts after that he won and paid $10.80.

Trilla Town: On Jan. 27, this 9-year-old raced and finished seventh for trainer-driver Michael Jarvis and owner Jack Redpath of Glen Huron, Ont. Next out, on Feb. 3, he was owned by Charles and Lynn Whitmer of Rochester, trained by Charles Whitmer Sr. and driven by Mike Caprio. First time out for the new outfit, he won and paid $14.

Happy hunting.

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