04/02/2004 1:00AM

For $15, a chance to hit a big one


PHOENIX - Except for its inception year, 1997, the Big 3 Pick 3, which comprises the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby, has been a sensational wager. Despite a number of heavy favorites winning, the $1 gimmick has paid handsomely:

Here is a list of winners and what the Big 3 Pick 3 has paid each year:

2003 - $182.50 (Empire Maker, 1-2; Peace Rules, 3-5; Sir Cherokee, 56-1`)

2002 - $128 (Buddha, 3-1; Harlan's Holiday, 3-5; Private Emblem, 4-1)

2001 - $121 (Congaree, 8-5; Millennium Wind, 4-1; Balto Star, 8-5)

2000 - $249.50 (Fusaichi Pegasus, 4-5; High Yield, 9-5; Graeme Hall, 18-1)

1999 - $3,594 (Adonis, 3-1; Menifee, 7-1; Valhol, 30-1)

1998 - $450.50 (Coronado's Quest, 1-1; Halory Hunter, 4-1; Victory Gallop, 7-1)

1997 - $30.80 (Captain Bodgit, 8-5; Pulpit, 2-5; Crypto Star, 5-2)

Last year is a prime example. Empire Maker won the Wood at 1-2. Peace Rules was just 3-5 when he won the Blue Grass. It was easy to expect a paltry payoff, but 56-1 Sir Cherokee turned the bet on its head, leading to a great payoff.

The wager may pay even better next Saturday. That's because there are no overwhelming favorites such as Empire Maker and Peace Rules, although Lion Heart could go off at low odds in the Blue Grass.

Part of the issue with these major Derby preps is intent. For some of these horses all that is required is a good, steady run; a nice step forward to punch their ticket to Churchill Downs. For others there's a sense of urgency. Either they need to run big in order to prove they belong, or they need to run big because of missed time or having taken a step or two backward during the winter. So, let's break down each race and come up with an early ticket:

Wood Memorial: Value Plus and The Cliff's Edge just ran two-three in that low-rated Florida Derby a few weeks ago. As I wrote last week, however, low figure aside, the Florida Derby horses had already proven they were fast. Read the Footnotes, fourth in the Florida Derby, had run a 113, and Value Plus had run a 108. I'm not very worried about the low Florida Derby number for winner Friends Lake - unless Value Plus and The Cliff's Edge come back and run slowly again. I'm betting that won't happen, though.

But does that make them the horses? Not necessarily. Eddington's bandwagon continues to grow, and his Gotham third wasn't bad considering he chased a sizzling pace at a trip likely short of his best. He's still green, however, and I'm still not convinced he's really this good. I also can see him getting overbet. Sinister G came up big in the Lane's End but had things his own way up front. That's not going happen here with Value Plus in the field.

The two most interesting entrants are Tapit and Master David. Tapit's 2004 debut after dazzling us last fall was delayed due to some setbacks. In the Florida Derby, he loomed a threat but flattened out. On the surface it didn't seem a terrible way to come back after many months off, and then came word he had some mucus in his throat afterward. Trainer Michael Dickinson, one of my favorites, still needs to find out how good Tapit is. I'd expect him to show his absolute best in this spot, very much the way Empire Maker ran in last year's Florida Derby, when he won by nine after a so-so Sham run out West.

Master David suffered a setback after a game win in the Sham, one that was flattered when Sham third-place finisher Preachinatthebar came back to win the Grade 2 San Felipe. Bobby Frankel, like Dickinson, has no room for error here. He needs a big race to propel this guy into the Derby.

I'd expect both of them to run well and will use them. On current form and with his speed, Value Plus is a must-use as well, sending us three deep in Leg 1.

Blue Grass: Here's where I'll take a stand. I really wish Eurosilver was in here to attract more money, but his absence makes this spot easier for Lion Heart, as if he needed any help. Lion Heart is fast, talented, and game. I don't really know how he'll fare in the Kentucky Derby, but 1 1/8 miles should be within his reach, particularly when it looks as though he can dictate everything from the get-go. A speed horse with class at Keeneland? Too easy, right? We'll single Lion Heart and hope furlong No. 9 doesn't find him wanting and susceptible to Preachinatthebar or Action This Day.

Arkansas Derby: Smarty Jones is smart indeed. You don't go 5 for 5 by accident, and while I don't know about his Kentucky Derby prospects, I see no reason he can't go at least this far. I'm very keen about Seattle Borders, a talented Frankel trainee whom he purchased for Ed Gann during the winter. He won the Grade 3 Baldwin sprinting on turf, and then was a fine second in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate. Mr. Jester had an excuse in his poor Rebel run behind Smarty Jones and needs to run big to be considered for the Derby. Harvard Avenue is sneaky good - he ran a better-than-looked third in the Grade 2 San Felipe behind Preachinatthebar and St Averil. Finally, Borrego is my main horse. He came home strongly in both the Sham and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and certainly appears the real deal. Upgrade him further if Wimbledon were to run big in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby.

My Big 3 Pick 3 ticket will be as follows: Tapit, Master David, Value Plus/Lion Heart/Borrego, Smarty Jones, Seattle Borders, Mr. Jester, Harvard Avenue.

That gives me a $15 ticket (3x1x5) and a chance to bump up the bankroll heading toward the Derby.