10/08/2004 12:00AM

Affordable all-day action

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NEW YORK - Several cynical horseplayers have been begging me to make fun of Keeneland's new "Mutuel Fun" wager, which debuted at the track's opening on Friday. The problem is, it actually strikes me as a pretty cool idea.

Keeneland is doing so many progressive and interesting things at this meeting - offering lower takeout on multirace bets, experimenting with a synthetic training track, using radio transmitters to generate more accurate past-performance data - that the modest little Mutuel Fun bet may get lost between those innovations and the flurry of opening-weekend stakes races. The idea of the bet, though, could be a first step toward some true innovation in the parimutuel system.

The idea of the bet is that a customer buys a minimum of $20 worth of daylong action on a track handicapper's pre-announced plays. The opening-day selections were 16 separate wagers over seven races, including win, place, quinella, and trifecta plays, each expressed as a percentage of bankroll. Someone with only $20 to invest could not make all those bets at the current $1 minimums. If you bought a $20 Mutuel Fun bet on opening day, 6 percent of your investment, or $1.20, was going to be bet on six trifecta combinations in the Alcibiades Stakes. In effect, you're being allowed to make six 20-cent bets. If a total of $1,000 were invested in the Mutuel Fun pool, $60 would be invested on those combinations on behalf of all the players in the pool.

At the end of the day, the shareholders get their proportion of the remaining bankroll. If you bought a $20 share of a $1,000 pool that grew to $1,500, you'd get back $30 for a $10 profit. If the $1,000 sank to $400, you'd get back $8 for a $12 loss.

It's no accident that there's a difference of only a couple of letters between Mutuel Fun and a mutual fund. The idea is that by pooling their money, small investors can diversify their risk and get involved in multiple pools that would otherwise be unaffordable.

As currently offered, Mutuel Fun is only appealing to the very laziest and most inexperienced players. The selections are timid and unimaginative: The largest portion of the opening-day fund was 12 percent of the bankroll to place on favored Clock Stopper in the Phoenix Stakes. It's understandable that the bet would be introduced this way, to increase the chances that the fund doesn't have a 0 percent return on investment right out of the box, but the greatest potential for a parimutuel fund is in sharing the risks and rewards of more adventurous wagers.

For example, if Keeneland gets any kind of a meaningful pick six carryover during this meet, the Mutuel Fun for the next day could be devoted largely or solely to a large pick six play, giving small players the fun of playing a $1,000 ticket with a $20 investment. This harkens back to the era of pick six breakfast meetings, where trackgoers would congregate for a seminar and pony up $20 each for a piece of someone's big ticket. Some of these gatherings fell from favor when occasionally the seminar leader would, to put it charitably, forget to put in the winning combination. With the track holding and betting the money, and not claiming a management fee, this would not be a concern.

If the Mutuel Fun idea catches on, there could be multiple funds to choose from, just as there are with your retirement investments. The faint of heart could still go for The Rock Fund consisting of place and show bets on logical favorites, while more daring souls could take shots with the parimutuel equivalent of high-flying tech funds or penny stocks. You might take a piece of The Contrarian Fund, which attempts to beat every favorite on the card, or The Maniac Fund, consisting of nothing but superfecta boxes involving crazy longshots.

The whole idea is a variation on fractional betting schemes such as the dime-superfecta minimum recently proposed in this space. Keeneland may try that next spring, and Hinsdale Greyhound Park and OTB in New Hampshire instituted "Dime Supers" last month. At Hinsdale, all box and key superfectas can be made in 10-cent increments, so a six-runner super box that would cost you $360 with a $1 minimum can now be purchased for just $36. A key of one runner over six others runs you $12 instead of $120.

The goal is to make the sexiest wagers affordable to more bettors. Pick fours are the biggest growth segment on the wagering menu because they give a moderate player a reasonable chance at cashing for a $24 or $36 investment. That kind of a play is simply too small to give anyone a realistic or regular chance of hitting a superfecta or pick six, however.

Whale-scale players don't like the idea of discounted super-exotics, since it reduces the leverage of their larger bankrolls, but they may want to look at it another way: The only way to grow these exotic pools is to get more people playing them, and that's just not going to happen under the current economics of $1 and $2 minimum units.

Mutuel Fun funds in a sense violate the essential joy of handicapping: Picking your own horses and feeling smart when they succeed. The funds, however, could be a good first step toward that goal. After joining a fund for a while, a new player might decide that the handicapper making the picks is in fact an idiot, and could do better making his own selections. Thus is a new horseplayer born.