02/12/2009 8:00PM

Back to the Futures

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Betting started today on Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Futures Bet, and good luck to you if you're playing. It's one of the blindest bets you can make in the parimutuel world, and while the winner often looks like a bargain in retrospect, never forget that you're paying a huge premium by not getting a refund if your horse doesn't make it to the race. Since it seems like only about a third of the 23 individual horses available in Pool 1 make it to the starting gate each year, maybe the rule of thumb should be that you need to get triple the Derby Day price. Funny Cide in 2003 was indeed a bargain at $188.00 in Pool 1 as opposed to $27.60 on Derby Day, but were Monarchos ($36.60 vs. $23.00) and Street Sense ($22.80 vs. $11.80) really worth the additional risk?

Of course it's almost impossible to answer questions of value, since there's no way to guess whether a 3-year-old you're currently fond of is going to be more like 5-1 or 30-1 after a few hundred other things happen over the next 11 weeks.

It seems as if horseplayers have soured on the entire proposition in the last few years. Unrelated to other betting trends, and well in advance of the current economic slowdown, Derby Futures handle began to fall sharply after peaking at $1.66 million for all three pools in 2005. It's been all downhill since then, dropping to $1.47 million in 2006, and $1.36 million in 2007. Last year's total tumbled to just $1.05 million, a 36.5 percent decline in three years.

As someone pointed out in the comments on the last post (sorry it's been a while but it's been a flu week around here), I've written an annual column proposing that the bet be opened up to as many individual betting interests as there are nominees. Having bets available on 400 to 500 horses instead of just 23 plus an all-others mutuel field, would have obscure horses going of at over 1000-1 and practically demand that the connections as well as fans of Derby nominees bet their own horses at outlandish prices.You might have gotten 200-1 on Big Brown last February instead of 3-1 on him as part of the mutuel field.

Churchill Downs has responded to this suggestion by saying the tote companies either can't accomodate such a system or would charge six-figure fees for programming. I've never understood this. A free workaround would be to assign each of the 400 to 500 nominees a three-digit code, and set up the bet using existing pick-three or trifecta systems. If Midshipman is #243 alphabetically, you buy a 2-4-3 ticket just like you can any other day of the year. Someone, anyone, please explain why this wouldn't work.

In last year's version of the annual screed, I proposed an alternative (Download Column020908) that stemmed from this line of thinking: If CD was determined to stick with 24 betting interests, why not sell actual Derby Futures Exactas? At least that way there would be 552 combinations to bet on instead of 24.

Derbyfutureexacta I was happily astonished (at first I thought it was a Benadryl-induced hallucination) earlier this week when Churchill announced it will indeed be trying Derby Futures Exactas on Pools 2 and 3 this year. Their variation on the idea, which probably makes sense, is not to offer the #24/#24 exacta combination ("all others" with "all others") I had initially thought would be necessary. Instead, the #24 entry will be treated like any other coupled entry or mutuel field. If "all others" run 1-2-3-4, the winning exacta combination would be #24 with the fifth-place finisher.

I'd still prefer a win pool with all 401 nominees (and a 402nd interest for late nominees and supplements), but 2.5 cheers to Churchill for trying something new. I have no idea whether the inaugural DFE will handle more like $100,000 or $500,000, but I'll definitely be getting involved, even though I have yet to develop a glimmer of a notion of a Derby horse.

A few related thoughts:

--The DFE will be offered on the weekends of March 12-15 and April 2-4. So we'll get to see the Louisiana Derby, Rebel, Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe -- all carded for March 14 -- before betting the first exacta pool. The second one closes after the Florida and UAE Derbies (March 28) and the April 4 trio of the Wood, Santa Anita and Illinois Derbies (all April 4), but before the April 11 Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

--If you're unlucky enought to live in the only state (New York!) that doesn't permit parimutuel activity on Palm Sunday, don't wait until April 5 to bet the final pool unless you have an out-of-state betting account. Unless regulators or legislators come to their senses, NYRA and the state's OTB's will be closed April 5, even though the state's casinoes and lottery outlets will be open.

--If you're interested in the history of the Futures bet, and even in playing the win-only Pool 1 this weekend, here's a handy page with the current entries and the results dating back to the inception of the bet in 1999.